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denial

When Nikandros arrived at Ios, the first place he ran to was Damen’s quarters.

Blissfully, excruciatingly, it had not been cleaned, or changed one bit. The bed was made. The shelf, lined with favored tomes and sentimental gifts, still stood intact. His sword lay harmless on the floor, still sheathed. Chitons and cloaks and clothing were all still folded in the wardrobe.

If Nikandros hated himself enough, he could imagine that Damianos would walk through the door at any time. He could imagine him opening his arms in welcome, his face bright in a laugh, challenging Nikandros to a wrestle in the training arena. As if they were children again.

But Nikandros had not come to Ios to meet Damen. Nikandros had come for the funeral.

If Nikandros wished to revolt badly enough, he could imagine the signs of a struggle. The sword, sheathed but discarded, carelessly, on the floor. The cracks on the wine and water jugs, which perhaps might contain poison. The haphazard tilt of the tomes, as if uncared for.

Nikandros did wish to revolt.

His hands moved on their own, browsing books, ransacking drawers, pulling up the sheets of the bed. Anything, he thought. Anything that might explain this. How. Why. Why.

What he wanted, what he was looking for, he could not say. Maybe, he thought childishly, there would be a letter tucked in one of the books, or in the inkwell: a message from Damen, perhaps, saying Kastor had betrayed him and he had escaped and here was where to meet him— maybe if he unsheathed the sword he would find the dried blood on it, and if he looked at it, if he saw it with his own eyes somehow he would know that it was Damen’s blood, and people would believe him when he called it proof of Kastor’s treachery— maybe if he rode out and forced his steed into a fast enough gallop he would glimpse his Prince in the neighboring villages, hiding in plain sight from his brother, because he had finally heeded Nikandros’ warnings.

But there was nothing. Of course there was nothing.

Kastor is thorough, said a voice in his head, and Nikandros shut his eyes. For the first time since he had first heard of Damen’s death, he felt tears burning behind his eyelids and a sob lumping in the back of his throat.

Here, in a room where he was finally alone, in a place that offered only dying memories, he let them come.

There was something shining in the back of the drawer, struck by sunlight from the window. With numb fingers, Nikandros drew it out.

It was the royal lion pin.

Nikandros had watched King Theomedes give it to his son when Damen had passed seventeen years. King Theomedes had had that smile on his face which he had reserved only for him, his heir.

Kastor had been sullen and quietly furious, that day. That had not been the first time Nikandros had worried.

For all his days after that, Damen had worn the pin with pride. In Nikandros’ palm, it felt like something sacred.

Nikandros suddenly became aware of what a mess he had made of Damen’s quarters. He had looked everywhere, and ruined the room in doing so. Where Kastor was King, Nikandros was only Kyros. If he showed even a hint of defection, what would Kastor do?

Help me, Damen. An irrational thought, brought by hysteria and sleepless nights. Damen had been even more blind to Kastor’s treachery than Nikandros. Nikandros must be practical.

Nikandros didn’t want to be, though. He looked down at the pin, and in his mind he acknowledged that it was proof of nothing. It was sentiment. It was treason, to hold it in his hands.

He closed his fist hard around it until he felt the sharpest edge prick him and draw blood. The tears had stopped, but the numbness had returned.

Quiet as a storm’s eye, he left.

 

anger

At the Kingsmeet, Kastor was crowned King. All the kyroi, the royal advisors, the soldiers knelt to hail him.

Nikandros pressed one knee to the ground, head bowed, and thought: Even this feels like treachery.

It felt like betrayal, like something underhanded. It felt— Veretian.

“You have my loyalty, Exalted One,” Nikandros pledged. Beneath the armor, his pulse felt lightning-quick. He resisted the urge to grit his teeth. The word Exalted had never suited Kastor less.

In his mind, he wished Kastor dead.

Above him, upon his throne, he knew Kastor’s gaze missed nothing. The smile on those lips should have been benevolent. Instead, it looked cruel.

Later, when Nikandros convened with Kastor in the Council of Kyroi, one thing became painfully clear.

Under Kastor’s rule, Akielos was a pack of wolves.

Nikandros imagined he could see, clear as day, which of the kyroi were loyal to Kastor, and which ones stood on the edge of defection, and which ones were too terrified to oppose the new King. He could see the slow chokehold of this new regimen, as Kastor began replacing generals, forging relationships with people against whom the former King would have waged wars. Kastor had claimed that Damen’s guards had killed the Crown Prince, and so even the soldiers had been changed. Gone were Damen’s royal guards, who Nikandros might have trusted with his life; gone were Theomedes’ faithful men.

Dispatched, Nikandros thought. Whether it had been done recently along with the King and Crown Prince, or slowly, subtly through the months and years, he did not know. In the end they had all been complacent; and here, here was the price.

Nikandros watched Akielos tearing herself apart around him and around her new king, and Nikandros watched Kastor watching him back. Those black eyes seemed to dare him, seemed to say: Will you serve me wholly, or defect?

You will die either way.

With a start, Nikandros realized Kastor must fear him. To an extent.

How was he alive? He was an outlier to Kastor’s plans, a variable Kastor would not be able to control. Perhaps Kastor’s treachery had not been able to reach him, in thriving, northern Delpha. Perhaps Nikandros was too important— or, more likely, not important enough for Kastor to eliminate.

Still. If Nikandros were a sensible man, he would probably be fearing for his life.

Instead, Nikandros stared calmly back at Kastor, reckless with grief. I’ll find out, he wanted to say, to shout. If you’ve done something— you have done something— I will find proof.

 

bargaining

Ten heads are pierced and placed on the pikes of the traitor’s walk, just outside the palace.

Traitors of Akielos, Kastor declared. The soldiers who killed the Crown Prince. A disgrace to this nation.

Nikandros walked past those heads and stared. He thought: Damen loved and fought alongside these men. He grew up with some of them. They would have given their lives for him. They have.

Sometimes, Nikandros thought that he should have been a head on those pikes. For he had been a fool, and his Prince and King had paid for it. Nikandros had seen, more clearly than anyone else, what Kastor had wanted, what Kastor longed to do. How could he have known that, and not pressed Damen more about it? Nikandros had warned him, but only once— how had he ever let the matter go, knowing what he had known?

He had been afraid of Damen’s fury, Damen’s steadfast loyalty in his brother. He had been afraid to tell it to the King, frail as he had been. Nikandros had been a coward.

His mind mocked him with the word. Coward, coward, coward. Because if he had just— forced Damen to believe him. If he had shoved his suspicions into Damen’s face, until Damen snapped and perhaps hit him and burst with his anger— something would have been different. Anything. Anything.

By God, Nikandros had been such a fool.

Of the ten traitors, Kastor said: “May they become an example to all who think to commit treachery against Akielos.”

What Nikandros heard was: May this be a warning to all who dare challenge me. This is what will become of you.

The more Kastor spoke, the less Nikandros believed him. He wouldn’t believe a word of it.

So instead, Nikandros chased tails. He forwent responsibilities and rode into the market with only a hood to disguise him, asking commoners: what do you know of the Prince and King’s passing? what has Kastor said, and what do you believe?

As if this would bring Damianos back. It was easy, and dangerous. The people of Akielos were alive with gossip and fear. They said Kastor is a fair King and no, Kastor planned this and Kastor’s doomed us all.

There had been a ship on the edge of the harbor that day, a man tells him. It had been there since morning, which was strange, they said; it had been nearing dusk when it actually sailed.

It was a slave ship, claimed a woman, and Nikandros did not know how to respond. Headed north.

They said, The Prince might be alive. You never know.

The Prince might be alive, Nikandros thought, if only I knew where to look, if only I looked hard enough. The Prince might be alive, he thought, and searched, and searched, and searched.

 

depression

But days passed, turned into a week. Nikandros found suspicions of just about everything and proof of exactly nothing. It sank in slowly: Damianos is dead. Once Nikandros got started on that train of thought, he could not stop. Damen is dead, dead, dead. He will not return.

At the interment, men told tales about his greatness. Damianos, the man who won them Delpha. The Prince who loved his country more than himself, and would have gladly died for it. A leader of men and a loving son and an honorable friend.

It only exhausted him. The long ceremony.

As evening neared, he prepared to return to the palace. He would stay in Ios for as long as necessary. Kastor needed the counsel of the kyroi, after all— but more than that, Nikandros thought privately, Kastor needed to be watched.

“Nikandros,” said a voice from behind him. Nikandros turned, and nearly vomited.

Jokaste stood there, her face pale and flawless, and all Nikandros could remember, then, was Damen’s enchantment with her, how he had been overjoyed to have her in his arms. Now, she was with child, and it was public knowledge that she and Kastor were— lovers.

“Lady Jokaste.”

Jokaste smiled. “It has been a while since we last met, hasn’t it?” She stood in a dress of black, reaching her ankles. But there was a ring on her finger. Kastor’s.

He loved you, Nikandros wanted to say, and couldn’t. He remembered Damen’s letters about her, smitten. He courted you for months.

“I— yes, my Lady,” he said, to cover the silence. He wasn’t prepared for this, for Jokaste’s sharp, spearing mind. The ring on her finger could mean only one thing. The lady before him was a beauty, but she was a politician of her own league. Nikandros did not have the energy to deal with her, not here, at Damen’s funeral, not when his heart was splintering like this. For God’s sake, just let me grieve.

“How unfortunate that we must meet under these circumstances.”

“Unfortunate,” Nikandros echoed, hollow. He wanted to ask, rudely, Do you mourn him at all?

“We should be wary, in these times,” Jokaste murmured. “Clearly, it is a time of deceit.”

Nikandros’ heart pounded. “Deceit?”

“After what happened to Damianos. His own soldiers killed him, as I recall. That is all I meant. We must be careful.”

“I… see.”

“Do you, Nikandros?”

Nikandros said nothing. They stared at one another. Jokaste’s face held no emotion in it. Her ring gleamed. “Do be careful, Nikandros,” Jokaste said, dipping her head. “I will leave you to your peace.”

 

acceptance

And Nikandros was wary; Nikandros was careful, because Nikandros thought that it was very likely that he might be accused of defection at any moment. He didn’t know whether Jokaste’s words were a warning or a threat. But he heeded them, because he had no choice.

Kastor didn’t need to kill him, because while he was here in Ios, Nikandros had no friends left anyway.

So Nikandros was careful, but neither was he idle, because surely, surely there was something he could do . There had to be something, because when Nikandros looked at King Kastor, his palms itched, burned with rage. No, he wanted something more than revenge, now. It was the injustice of it all that lent him courage.

Nikandros was a soldier. He knew how to speak to other soldiers, and that was exactly what he did. Not to the new royal guard; to common guards who had no status and were not part of Kastor’s faction. He spoke to them not as Kyros, but as a fellow soldier. Their tongues were looser if they didn’t know who he was.

Never imagined Leon would defect, a guard said when Nikandros asked about one of the soldiers who had been executed. Wasn’t like him.

There was a fight on the day Prince Damianos was killed, reported one soldier. I heard it. We were ordered by our officer not to leave my post. Kastor-Exalted’s officer.

I heard a shout, I don’t know if it was one of the traitors or the Prince, and I heard slaves screaming, said another. We don’t know what happened, they all told him. We don’t know how it happened.

He takes every snip of information and hoards it like a hound.

When he teases out the inaccuracies that made up that fateful day, he almost cheers.  One: The bells had rung earlier than the capture of the treasonous soldiers. They rang at dusk, one said to him; another claimed that night had fallen then. But they agreed that the ten soldiers were detained and executed much later than that; almost like an afterthought.

Which was simply— a little too excited of Kastor, Nikandros thought crudely. Absent-minded. Apparently even Jokaste became careless in the face of a new kingdom.

And that was only the first. Second, was the poison.

Nikandros had found it out in the private gardens, a place he should not have been wandering: a creeping vine of deadly berries behind the hedge, where no one would have easily noticed. Slow-killing, and fatal. Alone, a mere plant would not have been proof— but when he climbed over the hedge he saw the flat knife to crush the berries with and the wide-necked bottle to keep the juice in.

It had all long since been discarded, buried in the mud. No one had been expected to notice.

Nikandros looked at the evidence, and thought of the King, wracked with coughs and fevers, and took everything.

Third, and most of all: Simply, the letter.

Which was to say, not at all simple. Nikandros’ fists had clenched when he had received it, crumpling the parchment.

Aid, the Prince of Vere had written. Your army, in exchange for proof of Kastor’s treachery, for he has colluded with my uncle the Regent.

When he first read it, Nikandros almost fell to his knees. Would have, if he had not pulled himself upon a nearby chair. Proof, Crown Prince Laurent had written, a tempt. Proof from a prince, and that was all Nikandros wanted.

More than the bitter triumph was the relief: He had not been wrong. Kastor was a traitor, and if it was some foreign enemy royal who would vouch for it, then fine. Nikandros had been backed into a corner with one missive, and he didn’t care; he would throw a thousand armies to take Kastor off that throne.

Here, at last, a reason to leave Ios, which nowadays felt to him like a lion’s den, dark and war hungry. He had duties of his own in Delpha, after all, and must see to them; he told Kastor so, and watched the King watch him ride out into the north.

Damen was dead, he thought, but he would get justice. It was the only thing that kept his hands steady on the reins. Damen was killed, but Nikandros would kill Kastor.

Maybe then, he thought, if he finally accomplished this one thing— his heart would let him rest.

He thought, while riding to the border, to Ravenel— he was ready.

The plan was clear. He would meet with Laurent, win whatever game this Veretian was playing with him, throw whatever amount of men or arms he asked for— sacrifices, sacrifices— and return to the Kingsmeet with tangible, condemning proof. He would convince the kyroi to sentence Kastor to death, another head on a pike, and elect someone worthier of being King. There would be a clean beginning.

Damen’s death would not be in total vain, and Nikandros’ heart would finally not ache so much. His mind would let him sleep at night. There would be rest, for all of them. It would be finished.

He was ready. He’d thought so.

Then Ravenel opened her gates to him, and Nikandros lead his men within. He saw the man across him, in front of an army of his own, and thought that was the Prince, or the Prince’s Commander. But as the man crossed the space between them Nikandros realized that that was impossible, for although the man was dressed in Veretian attire he was dark-skinned, and clearly—

— an Akielon—

the Prince might be alive; you never know. 

Proof of Kastor’s treachery, Laurent of Vere had promised.

The last time we spoke, the man told him now, his voice deep and clear and so-long-missed, the apricots were in season.

It was not possible. Nikandros’ mind had surely splintered, broken, madness brought by grief. Absurdly he felt tears burning behind his eyes. Nikandros must have cried more in the past month than in his whole life.

And here, here he had thought himself ready. Nikandros was a fool of the worst kind.

Nothing is as any of us thought, Damianos said; and Nikandros’ knees buckled.