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On a bed of white flowers

Chapter Text

Laurent has only been in the sea once.  

He'd had to go in with a shirt on, his skin too fair even for the mild Veretian sun.  

He remembers the weight of the cotton getting heavier with each step. His father had insisted – if he could swim in a marble pool in Arles, what difference would open water make?  

The wave had been like wind on sheets of paper. He'd fallen and scattered, salt soaking him from the inside out.   

He'd kept his eyes open. The light had quivered in harsh shifts of greenish blueish yellow white. Then it’d been black at the edges and black right above him, until the light had become an arm and the arm had brought him up to the surface. 

He looks at the man in front of him. The man, the beast. His mind swims. 

“You have a scar,” he says. He drowns. As he speaks, his mouth fills with water, down his lungs, down his legs. 

No one rescues him. 

  

  

He abandons the slave to rot in the harem. He has him beaten. He tells himself he'll never see the slave again. That the slave doesn't matter.  

But he drinks, like a hollow, limp sack of nothing, filling to regain its shape. He drinks not to think of the slave, but the wine melts the last of his feeble restraints, and from there it's no longer a prickling on his mind, but a pounding.  

He has to see him. He's been robbed, his insides the ruins of a ransacked city. He's playing into a trap and it doesn't even matter. The years he's spent training don't matter.   

Damianos of Akielos is no more, and Laurent's sword will never find its rightful place into his filthy, barbarian heart during battle.    

The slave is never going to leave the palace alive.  

  

*  

  

If only he could read his Uncle's mind.   

  

  

He’d tried – he did try. Not to let the slave’s presence be but a flicker in his peripheral vision, annoying but ignorable.  

It’s not. It’s a small sphere of lead lodged in his stomach, moving with his every breath and weighing him down.  

He’s never been overly proud. It doesn’t take long for his thirst to overcome his resistances: he goes to the family’s crypt, where he – they are buried. When he goes back into the palace, everyone stops talking as soon as he steps into a room. But he gets the gist; something the slave did, or said, or maybe the way he flexed his ample muscles.  

That doesn’t make him angry. No. It’s enough to be reminded that the slave breathes, and lives, while all Laurent has left are blocks of marble on the ground and a crown he may never get to wear. 

He’s tying his laces himself this evening. He double-knots the wrists with an intricate twists of the fingers he learned from his mother. In the court, his jacket might as well be a battle dress. 

Laurent would never voluntarily go to the ring, but tonight he will. In the privacy of his apartments, of his mind, he can admit that.   

 

  

“You look constipated,” says Nicaise, passing next to him in the gardens.  “More than usual, I mean.” 

The spot Laurent chose is at one of their corners, far from the perfumed paths and vibrant flower displays. Nicaise has either lost all sense of direction, or was searching for him. Not that they’d ever mention it. 

Laurent raises an eyebrow. If Nicaise has something to say, he'll say it. 

"I heard what you've done," Nicaise crosses his limber arms in front of his tunic, a hunter counting his dead preys. "He's going to be so mad." 

A pansy bush rests at Laurent's feet, the flowers brushing his ankles. He bends down to pick one and slips it between the pages of his book, then closes it shut. His reading's time is over. 

"And you're delighted about it? He'll be delighted too. He always is when he gets the chance to retaliate against me. I'm certain it'll make him quite... vigorous." 

Nicaise's jaw hardens and Laurent can see it all, the way his heart can barely keep up with all the conflict swirling into it. He's intimate with that conflict. To please, to survive. Hurt versus rejection. 

"Delighted? He'll be ashamed. Not laying in Akielos' filthy sweat, isn't that what you said? But you couldn't resist stripping in front of the barbarian, and didn't even know what to do with it." 

Nicaise's voice gets higher as he speaks, up to the tone he naturally spoke with no more than six months ago. He's growing up, in body. 

And in mind as well. 

How could you be so reckless?, is what Laurent hears, in that blurred space between practicality and wishful thinking. 

Because he can't seem to stop, "He said no to me," Nicaise continues. "He disobeyed an order. You should have had him flayed for that." 

Laurent hadn't slept that night after the ring. He'd been too busy tossing and turning, imagining the slave's thick fingers around Nicaise's arms, conjuring ways so that Nicaise wouldn’t have to be the true victim of Laurent's failed scheme. 

He'd ended up with the slave's hands on his own wrists, and that means he'll be able to sleep tonight. 

"You're right," says Laurent. "See, you're getting smarter than I am." 

 

 

He sleeps. He does. 

He still goes to Paschal the next day. 

It's how Auguste taught him to hunt: you either kill fast, or you let live. 

Anything in between is just cruel. 

 

*

"Prince Torveld is arriving soon," Herode says, dragging Laurent out of his thoughts.

The hydrangeas are in bloom in the gardens, their smell thicker at nighttime.

He left the Akielon in the midst of his court, with a broken leash. The slave is remarkably reluctant to being used as a pawn. Laurent can predict his anger - anger is the easiest emotion. He can see him being lured in by his Uncle, but not completely blindly. He can hardly fault him. His Uncle has entranced better men than him.

"According to my Uncle's schedule," says Laurent after a pause, "I'm barely supposed to meet Prince Torveld."

"Of course," Herode's voice gets more laboured, his wrinkly face redder. "Of course. I was not implying - but, Your Highness, with the  Regent's alliance to Akielos -"

It’d be good to have an ally of your own. As if Laurent hasn’t thought about it.

"Are you suggesting I go against my Uncle's orders? Oh Herode, you truly want me to forgive you."

 

*

 

Torveld of Patras is a pious man with only two apparent weaknesses.

One is well known: he's a viveur, who appreciates good wine, good food, a good hunt. The masters of the palace have been hastily working to meet all of his wishes, maybe in an attempt to make less conspicuous all those parts of the court that may be unsuited to Torveld's Patran sensibilities.

The other, Laurent only has to step into the same room as him to notice.

Torveld's gaze glides upon Laurent's skin like silk on a marble statue.  

It's all too easy to seed the idea of the slave trade into his enticed mind. So easy, he stands convinced before Laurent can even realise which side has won in the battle he's been having with himself since speaking with the Akielon slave.

This is for his Uncle. Moves and countermoves.  

Laurent has no sympathy for the slaves.

 

*

 

The Akielon slaves are being hosted in his Uncle's harem, at a convenient distance from Laurent's own chambers. It's a trip Laurent's grown unused to. He's grown unused to many things regarding his Uncle.

He lingers at the entrance. He's caught the slaves in a moment of rest and solace. The room, extravagant as the rest of the palace, suddenly resembles a scene out of an epic poem: youths like capricious nymphs, braiding each other's hair and reading poems while sprawled on the grass next to a spring.

Akielos and Vere stem from the same ancient empire. They share similar myths.  

Of nymphs, Vere's retained the pettiness, Akielos the indulgence. A simple matter of point of views.

But Laurent came for a reason.

Every forehead drops to the ground the moment Laurent breaks the threshold. Their bodies, limber and trained to a disturbing standard of perfection, betray only the slightest tension.

They belonged to the royal harem. They wouldn't shiver in front of a Prince.

How many unpleasant visits have these men and women received?

Erasmus was combing his hair when Laurent came in. An easy trick to make it shinier, seem lighter in colour.

He's kneeling now. Laurent bends down and picks up the fallen comb from next to Erasmus' shins.

"Can we have a word?"

He's never spoken to a slave before, with the exception of Kastor's soldier, not that he behaves anywhere like a real one.

Not that Erasmus’s status should make him any different than any other person.

Whatever fear Erasmus had been feeling is overcome by his surprise at Laurent’s Akielon. None of it has any ill effect on the artful arch of his wrist as he takes the offered comb, as if his body was trained to act in open disregard of his heart.

“Yes, Exalted.”

“I have to ask something of you,” Laurent says. “I heard you're afraid of fire.”

That gets a reaction, a visible recoil. Erasmus tugs the edge of his tunic lower on his thigh, his face growing paler and greenish.

It fills Laurent’s throat with bile, but it's not directed at him. Disappointingly, it's not even directed at the soldier slave.

Laurent doesn’t let any of it transpire.  He explains his plan to Erasmus without sparing another glance at his legs, and ignores any morbid curiosity he may have.

Would the mess of Erasmus’ thigh be more or less monstrous than the soldier slave’s back?

 

*

 

The morning of the hunt, his mare is already dying.

Laurent smells it in her sweat. Her nostrils flare like it'd be enough to breath the toxins out.

He spends minutes stroking her damp neck before his vision clears, the edges no longer blurred with the steam of grief.  

In the economy of chess, victory is not about numbers, but about space. You don't lose when you have the lowest number of pieces.

You lose when you have nowhere left to run.

Killing the horse isn't an option. It''ll happen, later, but not now. Laurent may know who did it, but not who's going to be framed for it.

What he elaborates boils down to: he's a better rider than his Uncle gives him credit for, and will survive hunting a sanglier on a poisoned horse. Most likely.

Even as he mounts, he can recognize that, as a strategy, it's quite lacking.  

It's a shame he can't tell the soldier slave. Lately, he seems to be as full of suggestions as he's low in common sense.

Riding is a fight. The poison spreads all over, as if trying to reach Laurent's blood through the reins. One of her legs will give out, it's a simple matter of when, and a complex matter of where Laurent will be when it happens.  

His Uncle's eyes never leave him, a morbid stare cataloguing every twitch in his mount. He, too, is waiting for the mare's breaking point. Or maybe he's just imagining the weight of the crown on his head. His posture's too relaxed to be afraid he might lose.

She was Auguste’s horse. That’s all Laurent can think as she collapses under him, his feet sliding out of the stirrups and his body falling on the ground seconds before she does the same.

She was Auguste’s horse, and his incompetent servant takes too long to finish her off as Laurent shouts vulgarities at him for his poor aim.

Laurent killed the sanglier, but it doesn’t feel like a victory.

 

 

His Uncle wishes to start a war with Akielos. It's not a secret to Laurent. It's not even a secret to the stableboys. A naive idiocy he thought he had outgrown had him wondering how.  

It turns out all it might take was one Akielon dagger.

It's rather clever, to let mercenaries into the palace and send them to kill him during the night-time. Not even his Uncle could predict that the yearning to fight of the Akielon slave would be stronger than his blatant desire to see Laurent beaten and killed. 

Not that Laurent blames him. It's a hatred he's carefully cultivated. 

It makes him want to laugh, a sizzling euphoria. A side effect of the drug. 

The slave sprints out the door before Laurent can come up with anything more convincing. Laurent isn't himself right now. He doesn't question why the sudden disappearance of the Akielon would leave his hands from finely trembling to shaking and sweating.  

He doesn't doubt that the slave can find his way out of the palace. He could probably find his way back to Akielos by foot. Maybe rip his golden cuff out with his teeth. 

The drug is... unpleasant. The feelings aren't new, but Laurent can shrink them to shadows, grey and dull. Now, splashes of colour explode in front of him like buckets of paint. 

A phantom touch, a hand on his wrist - drop the knife. A bench. Red hair between brown thighs. 

His eyes, slowly slipping, blink open. There's a sudden commotion outside his room, and the unmistakable sound of five old men walking after being woken up in the middle of the night. 

The drug is unpleasant, and yet not as much as whatever's coming next. 

 

 

Laurent stands in front of the statue, aware that it might be the last time. 

It's night. Tomorrow, he rides to Delfeur. 

He has no more moves to make but one. 

"He asked me to trust him," he says. "To make use of him." 

After six years, the absurdity of speaking to a block of marble is long gone. What bothers him the most is the nose, the cut of his jaw. 

Regret is an unpredictable beast. 

I regret letting my brother die. I regret letting a sculptor give him a cleft chin. 

The cleft chin is fine today. His eyes are too foggy to properly hate it. 

"I should leave him here. Locked in a room to grow mold over those muscles he'll never get to use again. He may even become Uncle's right hand man." A bitter, wet laugh. "They both enjoy striking down their opponents after they've already been weakened." 

He's been pacing without meaning to. His boots clank on the cobblestones. 

He stops. Auguste never moves, but he can see him so vividly, leaning against a tree with a bent knee, his arms crossed, his hair flopping on his forehead, that stupid floppy fringe he always combed his fingers through and made all those girls giggle. 

"You don't think so, do you. You think I shouldn't let this -- thing cloud my judgement. That surviving is more important." 

He's pacing again. Clank, clink, clank. He turns, abruptly.  

He comes here to make sense of what happens to him. He comes here because his only wish is to hear his brother laugh at him again. 

You think too much, little brother. One day your brain will explode, and it'd be a tragedy if I had to be the smart one in this family. 

"He saved my life. Out of pure instinct. I know how men like him act. Everything happened too quickly for him to weigh his options. It took him a full day to understand why I hadn't let Uncle make his head part of our outer walls' decor." 

He sighs, and let his body slump down on the ground. He crosses his legs and leans back on his hands. The statue watches him. 

He thinks of the mare, now buried in the field just outside his family's crypt. 

"Would you forgive me?" he asks, his voice now subdued, an empty provocation. "If Uncle wins, would you forgive me?”

But the statue stays silent, cleft chin and all.

 

*

 

The first stop of their journey is at Chastillon: an obligated one, as they have to pick up whatever delinquents and do-nothings his Uncle decided to grace Laurent's campaign with.

Between Govart, the Akielon slave riding like he's moments away from delivering an inspirational speech to the troops, and whoever's coming next, Laurent's stomach hardly has the time to turn at the sight of his Uncle's apartments.

"Your Highness," Jord comes to him as he surveys the camp. "Preparations are underway. The Akielon is taking care of the inventory, as you ordered."

Laurent hums. "Are you not going to mention whatever happened with Aimeric?"

"I thought it beneath your concerns." Jord doesn't falter as he speaks. "It's been taken care of."

"Has it?"

What did the Akielon think of it?, he almost asks, before realising how that would sound.

"He's green," says Jord, as if the son of a Councillor needs defending.

"How would you say things are going?" Laurent asks, looking at Jord suqarely.

Jord straightens his shoulders. "As good as it can be expected." Then, with more uncertainty, "Govart -"

"Yes," says Laurent. "Where is Govart? I guess I'll need to talk to the Captain at some point."

Not that he isn't already. Jord is the de facto Captain, and Govart no more than a nuisance that'll hopefully resolve by itself. Unfortunately, titles are more powerful than facts.

"I," Jord's voice does falter this time. "I saw him near the stables. He may be tending to the horses."

Laurent does admire Jord's attempt at subtlety. "Or tending to whoever's tending to the horses. Fetch him for me before he gets what little intelligence he possesses sucked out of his cock."

Jord nods, turning away with no objections.  

"On second thought," says Laurent. "Have the Akielon slave get him."

The more the slave stays occupied, the less chances he might wander off and accidentally become lord of the keep.

 

*

 

"Do you have any objections?"

The slave sits opposite to Laurent, a map between them. He regards him like one might an animal that could strike at any moment. It's a bit insulting: Laurent seldom acts without careful consideration.

Is the Akielon already regretting putting down the knife?

"What do you want to discuss?" the slave says, eventually, after some careful considerations of his own.

"My Uncle would have us ride in a straight line to Delfeur, through the provinces of Barbin and Chastrigne, then down to Fortaine. A week at most, with a good pace."

"We're not going to make it in one week."

Laurent can't keep his mouth from twitching. "You haven't seen the men ride yet."

"I don't need to." The Akielon sits with an elbow on the back of the chair, nonchalant, as if discussing military strategies with his Master was akin to sharing a drink in front of the camp fire. "You told me about your uncle. What do you want to do?"

"Arrive to Delfeur alive."

The Akielon sighs, leans closer to the map. "It's not going to be easy."

"Giving up already? I thought that was why you begged to take you with me. Aren't you Akielons supposed to be too honourable to break your word?"

"If you listened," the slave says, pointedly.

Laurent waves his hand at him, go on.

"I say we take a detour. Through the mountains."

The Akielon lays a fingertip over the stick figure of the keep at Chastillon on the map, drags it through a path heading southwest, then along the Vaskian borders. He hesitates on the final part - Ravenel or Fortaine?

"Yes," says Laurent, an effort to keep the surprise from his voice. "I was thinking -" and he traces his own route, almost overlapping, the same but for a couple of keeps that the slave had no way of knowing would be more welcoming. Before the slave can object to his changes, he adds, "I've already sent riders ahead."

It's the Akielon's turn to be surprised. Something in his gaze changes. His weight shifts on the chair.

"It’s still not going to be easy.”

“No,” Laurent says. “But you’ll get me there.”

 

*

 

The following evenings continue in a similar way.  

The Akielon wasn't lying when he said he knew the territory.

He had been lying when he said he was a soldier. Laurent would be surprised if he'd been a common soldier for longer than a day. Maybe when he was very young, and his biceps where still smaller than his brain.

During those nights, with their heads bent together on a map they could both draw out of memory by now, it's easy to forget.

The soft orange light of the candles plays tricks on Laurent's mind, on the slave's skin, until he no longer looks like a slave, or an enemy, or a threat at all.

The slave is insolent, disregards authority unless someone actively reminds him he's in no position to.

It isn't any different from how things were at Arles. But his barbarian honesty is rawer, slices through Laurent's skin and settles around his exposed bones.

Their journey is meticulously planned. Battle strategies, supplies, camp sites. But, while Laurent is busy thinking five steps ahead, the slave reminds him he needs those four steps too.

Govart.

Aimeric.

His Uncle's men, and how to make them become his own men.

It's just ironic, and terrifying, that it's the Akielon telling him he has to act now that gives him a wild, outrageous, impossible idea.

Laurent steps away. He has to - he can't look at the slave and think -

Herode's words, with your Uncle's alliance with Akielos -

But not.  

Not all of Akielos.

 

*

 

When Laurent comes back that night - after riding, and screaming, and giving in when his thoughts skipped from if to how -, he finds the slave lying on his pallet. He was sleeping when Laurent came in, but his eyes follow him as he undresses, as he sits at his desk, as he dips the quill in ink.

Laurent writes the letter.

He hopes it's comprehensible. It's in a language he never thought he'd get to use.

 

*

 

"We should stop before someone pukes their entire guts," says the Akielon slave, bringing his horse next to Laurent's. It's their third day at Nesson. The sky is starting to pale, the horizon blushing with red.

Laurent glances at him, then inclines his head in the direction of Aimeric. "Too late." But he waves his hand at Jord, newly captained.  

With the issue of Govart dealt with and the two extra weeks of training the Akielon requested, a sizzling hope is subtly starting to spread through the men. Or maybe it's just the exhaustion.

"Tired?" Laurent says, his eyes back on the Akielon, as the men disband at Jord's commands.

The Akielon snorts, one with his horse, his mount so exquisitely aristocratic. For someone the size of a mountain bear. "Are you tired?" He asks, an eyebrow raised.

Laurent digs his heels into his mare's flank. "Let's go another round."

The last drill wasn't a particularly exhausting one, but they do it at almost twice the pace they inflicted on the rest of the troop. It's harsher, but Laurent has long learned to enjoy the freeing payback of hard work.

They rode off without their helmets, abandoned on the ground as they spoke. The wind is gentle on Laurent's skin. Surely gentler than on the Akielon's curls.

Flattened by the long hours beneath the helmet, shiny with sweat, his hair hangs on his head with the same floppiness of Paschal's hat.

Laurent pulls his horse to a stop, the Akielon just a couple of steps behind him. His lips purse.

"What?" Asks the Akielon, his voice slightly hoarsened, a corner of his mouth lifted.

"You should ask someone to cut your hair."

"I thought you disliked me looking too Veretian."

"I'll dislike it even more if you accidentally kill someone because of your fringe," says Laurent. "Aimeric is worrisome enough."

"Aimeric will become a lot less worrisome soon," the Akielon says, brazen. It takes him a few seconds to realised he's been gossiping with the Prince.

"Good for Jord," says Laurent, savouring every ounce of embarassment.

 

*

 

"An inverted wedge." Laurent traces the shape of an upside down V on the map.

The subject tonight is strategies to compensate their numeric inferiority.   

The Akielon nods in consideration, his elbows bent forward on the table, then looks at him with the corner of his eye. "Were you trained in Artesian military tactics?"

"No," says Laurent, reaching his arm in front of the Akielon to grab at one of the oranges holding the corners of the map down. "I read it in a book."

Their arms brush as the Akielon spasms with laughter and Laurent settles back in his seat, one knee to his chest.

Jord's gaze shifts patiently between them.

 

*

 

"There."  

It's been a long night. One of their formations isn't holding, and they've spent the last hours arguing whether they have time to fix the formation as it is or should change strategy, and whether they have time to accomplish any of it. Even Jord has been long dismissed.

The Akielon picks up an orange and tosses it to Laurent, without prompting, maybe a minute after Laurent consciously realises he's craving one. He puts a pot of ink in its stead and resumes talking right away.  

For a moment, Laurent loses the thread. He holds the orange as if he's never seen a piece of fruit before in his life. He wills his cheeks not to redden.

The Akielon glances at him, as he's probably unaccustomed to Laurent not sharing his opinions for longer than a minute.

"What if we switched some men around," says Laurent, eventually, because the Akielon looks on the verge of asking him if he's all right.

He starts peeling the orange. Bright juice runs through his fingers and down his palm.

 

*

 

Laurent throws the cards at Volo. "Another round," he insists.

"You've lost all your coin, pet," says Volo, but he starts shuffling the cards anyway. "You should go to your Master about that."

Laurent looks back at the patrons of the inn. The Akielon seems to have overcome the shock and is now conversing with a richly dressed man, maybe a cloth merchant. He occupies at least two seats and a half on the bench, which is no matter since no one would dare sitting next to him uninvited.

"I have my earring." Laurent dangles the two sapphires with his fingers. "And if I win, I get your cap."

Volo gives a laugh tinged with wine. "Deal, pet."

Laurent has lost every single hand before this one. He went as far as telling Volo he didn't know the rules, and Volo had explained to him half like you'd talk to a slow child and half like someone trying to cheat you.

Two minutes later, Laurent is stashing the woollen cap in his belt.

The loss doesn't diminish Volo's giddiness in the slightest as he orders drinks for himself and Laurent.

Laurent takes the cup in his hands and stands up, his eyes drawn automatically to the other side of the room.

Damen sits by himself, his plate almost finished. He looks due for a refill.

 

*

 

Laurent leads the men following him on a series of senseless twists and turns around Nesson-Eloy, until he's confident enough he's lost them to disappear into last night's brothel.

The brothel's main room has no windows, giving it the atmosphere of an eternal night. The few customers are men who've spent the night and are now resuming their travels, or going to work. The girls are just as impeccably, and scantily, dressed as they were yesterday.

"Your Highness," says the mistress, after the usual gasping and curtsying. "I got a message from one of my sisters. She'll be here shortly."

Then, her voice lower, "But men came asking after you last night. They may still be looking."

"You'll have to hide me then."

The mistress nods, a general before battle. "You could wait in a room with one of the girls."

"I was thinking," says Laurent, glancing around, "of something a bit more... intricate."

The mistress is too shocked to attempt anything to stop Laurent from shrugging his clothes off and throwing a dress over his shoulders.

It's a strange sensation. The silk swishes over his legs in a way that's quite pleasant.

"The colour suits you, Your Highness," comments Clarisse, the blonde whom Laurent had sent to the Akielon yesterday while she wore this very dress. "Matches your eyes."

The mistress sputters. Laurent, amusedly, tugs at the front of it. His lack of breast is, from a sartorial perspective, unfortunate.

To aggravate the mistress' horror, Clarisse suggests he stick two oranges under the cleavage.

"I'm afraid, if I were a woman," says Laurent, "I wouldn't be graced with anything larger than the size of an apricot."

 

*

 

"Your companion," Clarisse asks, their faces close as they lie on the same couch. "Did you have to split up?"

Clarisse has been scolded for her curiosity a couple of times already, but the mistress is momentarily busy. Laurent doesn't mind.

"Yes."

"Oh," her lips curve into a pout, artfully attractive. "Is he safe? Are you worried?"

"Yes," Laurent repeats.

A half lie, a half truth.

"Well, I hope he's all right," says Clarisse. "He is so fucking hot."

"Clarisse!" shouts the mistress.

 

*

 

The Akielon sleeps through Laurent coming into the tent and undressing. He sleeps through Laurent waking up and redressing, and going outside to check on the camp’s activity.  

He's stirring when Laurent comes back, not awake yet. He lies sprawled on his back, the pallet ridiculously narrow beneath him.  

Laurent sits down on a chair and takes a minute just to breathe.

The Akielon earned him his first true victory. He deserves a break after one gruelling battle, three chases and two sleepless nights.

After stumbling into camp when Laurent no longer expected him to.

Laurent can quench any hope, any feeling, any longing.

He willed his heart to slow back down yesterday in front of the Akielon’s relief – you’re alive, the Akielon’s voice breaking with the earnestness of a prayer. He can will his thoughts from wandering, now, to the press of the Akielon’s chest against his, their bodies trapped between a wall and a balcony door. The trust with which he’d followed Laurent. The cleverness that had him insisting they separate.

He can ignore it all. In a minute.

“Good morning,” he says, eventually, when the Akielon’s lashes flutter on the verge of wakefulness. He’s smiling, and the dimple on the Akielon’s cheek deepens when he smiles back.

 

*

 

Paschal's tent is quiet and empty once again. The wounded have been tended, the dead buried.

After a night spent thinking, Laurent has come for answers. He knows one thing about yesterday's attack: it was an inside job, and the traitor's still among them.

"Your Highness." If Paschal is surprised of seeing him there, he doesn't show it.

"Yesterday morning,” Laurent says. “Tell me who died, and how."

Paschal's report is brief and succinct, with no embellishments. At the end of it, Laurent has suspects, but no certainties. He's overlooking something, a clue. Traitors always give themselves away.

Paschal says, cautiously, "The Akielon wasn't here when the fight broke out."

"No," says Laurent, an answer to an unasked question. "He was running an errand for me. He came back."

"He did." Paschal stares at him from under his hat.  

"I'll leave you to your duties," Laurent says, because Princes have to dismiss servants even when they're the ones leaving. He turns on his heels, walk the few paces to the tent flap.

And turns around.

"How does it look?" And, at Paschal's unsure frown, "The slave's back."

Paschal lets a moment pass. Two. "Better. Healing."

His leveled gaze is no longer confused, but curious. Why, haven't you seen it?

Laurent nods and leaves the tent. Outside, the camp prepares for sleep with renewed energy, like men working and not merely completing tasks, a side effect of the Akielon's reckless gamble last night. He spots Aimeric, carrying packs, his face pale, a little green.

Their next stop is Ravenel. Aimeric's aristocratic bones will find respite there.

 

*

 

"We ride to the hills," says Laurent. "Now. You and I, alone."

He feels the weight of the Akielon's resentment like a swamp of heat on his skin.  

(An Akielon village. A Veretian village. Collateral damage. Moves and countermoves.)

The slave nods, as if he's actually making an habit of following orders. "I'll prepare the horses."

"I was expecting you to be more," says Laurent, stopping him from turning away, "combative."

Patiently, "If your Uncle and his Lords want war, nothing we find is going to prevent it."

Laurent has spent long, painful hours in Lord Touars' great hall, assessing that. "I'm aware."

"As long as you know this," says the Akielon, "I have no objections."

The lack of objections is even more bothersome than an argument. Laurent can't shake the creeping doubt that something lies beneath it

Has he crossed a line? The Akielon rides next to him, unperturbed to the outside eye. He wouldn't even need to sell Laurent to the nearest troop. To be free, he wouldn't need to do anything but steer his horse to the right and gallop his way into the arms of Nikandros of Delpha.  

He's following Laurent through the most unstable patch of land in Vere, with no clue on Laurent's plan, for no other reason that he wouldn't let Laurent go alone.

If there's a logic behind his actions, it's beyond Laurent's understanding.

(For Laurent it was obvious, inevitable, that the slave was coming with him. He hadn't envisioned this part in any other way. That's also beyond his understanding.)

Hiding in a cave a mere hundred yards from an Akielon army, Laurent counts his chances of success as dwindling by the minute. Everything relies on near perfect timing and a conspicuous dose of good luck or, at least, lack of bad luck. Each player had to do exactly what it's expected of them. Except the Akielon - Laurent is relying on the Akielon behaving as customary, and doing none of what Laurent anticipates.

But Laurent has no chances against the churning of his mind. He's flooded with visions of capture, of a journey flanked by Akielon soldiers until he's delivered into the hands of the Kyros.

No, into the hands of the King, Laurent thinks, just for a second, and then the Akielon reappears at the entrance of the cave, alone, with the same idiotic, incomprehensible persistence with which he'd stumbled back into camp that last day at Nesson.

A certain hesitancy is clear in the set of the Akielon's shoulders, the flickering quality of his gaze, the heavy undertones behind his teasing. It reassures Laurent that something is happening under those tousled curls and, whichever conclusion the Akielon reaches, it'll be a thorough one.

The troop has long traveled past them. They continue their journey.

The act of riding is, to Laurent, akin to climbing stairs: more demanding than walking, with the added difficulty of calculating the width of each step, but essentially mindless. Falling is like arriving at the end of the staircase without realising it, when the foot reaches and finds no purchase but the void and then, further down, the ground.  

The sound his horse makes is screeching, horrifying. He, on the other hand, is unscathed. The soldier in front of him, dressed in Akielon livery, unsheathes his sword and Laurent gets a few moments of bitter amusement that yes, this is how he dies, before he's -

Alive.  

He blanks. The next thing he knows, Damen is pushing and prodding and, at times, frankly caressing all over his neck, back, arms, chest, legs. Fingers on his stomach tickle him.

Look higher, Laurent would say if he could. The injury is up here.

 

*

 

They split their duties as they make camp for the night. Laurent disappears to tend to the horses, paces away but hidden by the trees.

He needs not to see the Akielon for a while. A reprieve from hours spent plastered to his back, and how uncomplicated it had been to mount behind him and let him lead.

From the memory of the sound the soldier had exhaled as life left him, at Laurent's side like skewered meat. From the feeling of a sword through his chest, ribs shattered and lung collapsed, his heart leaking blood like a faulty faucet.

Laurent concentrates on his gelding's injury. He retrieves cloth from the packs and wraps it as best as he can, tight, to maintain the pressure. There's a brush in one of the packs - a useless indulgence that made it past the Akielon's scrutiny. Laurent uses it on his own horse. Then, on the Akielon's.

The Akielon has lit the fire - Laurent can hear its crackling. He must have noticed that Laurent’s taking too long, but, infuriatingly, doesn't call him out on it.

The Akielon had had a choice at the beginning. He's had many choices since. I'd be more merciful if he pretended to be a slave, his actions a staged performance of blind obedience. If he behaved with the unfocused rage of the prisoner, unable to see past his captivity.  

It'd be more merciful if Laurent could pretend this was the foolish fantasy of an inexperienced youth.

But this - Laurent is unworthy of it. Of this man who advises him, and teases him, and wants him to be his better self.

This man who wants him to be king.

Laurent rests his palms on his horse's back, soothed by the vibrations of it, the rhythmic widening and shortening of the space between the ribs.

It'll be short-lived. Whatever they have, whatever they are, whatever this is.

They either die, or he lets the slave go. There's no other ending to the story.

 

*

 

The Akielon fits in the tent more or less like he does in tight-laced Veretian clothes. The muscles on his abdomen ripple as he speaks, as if they're trying to be part of the conversation too, and the loincloth is so precariously perched that the slightest breeze may uncover what little the flimsy fabric leaves to the imagination.

Here's to Vaskian hospitality.

The ice melts on the Akielon's skin like butter on a fire, and Laurent with it. He wants to see if the dimple in the Akielon's cheek is the size of his index fingertip.

Two men died because someone tried to feel him up. Many more died because his plan, against all odds, worked.

Maybe the water the Vaskian women gave him was laced with hakesh. Maybe he's allowed not to feel like himself, for once.  

Tomorrow they go to war. The board is almost empty, and every move may be the last one.

That's tomorrow. Tonight they lie on Vaskian furs, lulled by the beat of the drums and the cheers around the fire: they're both foreigners here.

The Akielon looks at Laurent looking at him. He wouldn't do it first, and that knowledge is almost enough for Laurent to push past his reason and press close. Briefly, Laurent thinks, I could give myself this.

And then, wildly, almost feverish with the warmth of their proximity, Tell me, he thinks, tell me now. Tell me who you are, and we end this, now, in this Vaskian tent lost in a no man's land. Tell me and I'll tell you of the traitor in our troop, and I'll ask for your opinion. I'll tell you that an army from Patras will join us before my Uncle can squish us like bugs under the hooves of a cavalry ten times larger. I'll tell you what I wrote to Nikandros of Delpha, and what he answered.

More desperately, with a trap clawing at his fragmented heart, Tell me of a past that doesn't involve Kastor, or Jokaste, or Marlas. Tell me you're the son of a minor noble and that's why you walk like you're practicing balancing a crown on your head. That I'm wrong, and you're not who I know you are, and there's a chance, any chance, that at the end of this you might choose to stay. You might choose me.

Laurent parts his lips. The Akielon's gaze slips to them, and Laurent can't do it.

Tomorrow they go to war. Tonight, they sleep.

 

*

 

Laurent walks a long path from his apartments to the great hall, a needless zigzag across the fortress. His banners - his brother's banners - hang from every window, every flagstaff. With his men at every corner, Ravenel's blue and gold.

He drags his palm over a wall and thinks, This belongs to me now.

The great hall bears no resemblance to the place where Laurent stood five days ago, arguing against the lord of the fort. Now Lord Touars is dead, Guion escaped through the cracks of battle like the rat he is, and Laurent's the lord of the fort.

The benches are filled with men, drunk on victory, drunker on wine. At least five toasts in Laurent's honour are proclaimed and consumed in the time it takes him to reach the high table, and four more in his Captain's.

To Damen, a boisterous, slurred chant. The clink of glasses. The sloshing sound of chugging.

Still standing, Laurent picks up his water-filled glass and lifts it in the direction of the shouts. He'll drink to that.

Laurent's hands itch as he sits. He's grown accustomed to the Akielon occupying a good chunk of his visual field most of the time. He turns to whisper, It's our fault the streets of Ravenel will be covered in vomit come morning, but there's no one to whisper it to.

He can almost hear the answer - It's fine. I'll make your Uncle's men do the clean up -, and then a pang. For Laurent won’t have a Captain tomorrow.

Laurent shakes the thought away. He feels unsettled, giddy like Volo holding Laurent's coins. He's helpless to the euphoria outside him, the invigorating cacophony of chatter, and recounts of war, and feet and chairs scratching on the floors, a magnification of the aftermath of Nesson, the first time these men had agreed to kill and die for Laurent.

When his Captain arrives, their eyes meet across the hall. Like pulling a thread, the hold on Laurent’s chest releases, and then it's another sort of pull that has him rising to go get the Akielon himself, and bring him back to the table, to his rightful spot at Laurent's side.

He witnesses the Akielon's bittersweet resistance, his Captain too meticulous to plan his escape without ensuring Ravenel is as secure as it can be, and the slow, gradual unfolding of it, as he lets Laurent press morsels of meat to his mouth, and his lips part around them.

The men are less raucous now, or maybe Laurent is too attuned to the Akielon's sweet, repressed sounds of appreciation to notice it. Erasmus is singing to the notes of a kithara, in the Akielon fashion.

The Akielon calls for a request, a song Laurent doesn't know. He stares at Laurent as he does it, the words pronounced in careless Akielon. The shift is for Erasmus's sake, but Laurent thinks of their heads bent on a map for hours on end, and Laurent learning to navigate the nonsensical  system of accents of the Akielon language.

I wonder if he dreams of surrender, on a bed of white flowers, Erasmus sings, and Laurent thinks, Yes.

He thinks of his impulsive order to the servants in his bedchamber, Make sure my Captain is brought here tonight.

The Akielon looks at him, and the distance between looking and touching dissolves like sugar in water. He pushes his chair back with the wide-eyed panic of a man at the edge of a cliff, and the longing of a sailor who's spent too long on dry land.

He flees the hall, his hands trembling, like dozed with chalis.

Following him is not a matter of choice, but of sanity. Time crumbles like friable earth under their feet, and soon will end with a rockfall upon their path. When it happens, Laurent intends to survive it with his wits intact.  

Don't you see, he wants to shout at the Akielon's back, that there's no other way down?

 

*

 

The Veretian spring is slow to turn into summer. A lazy wind blows over the battlements, the starburst flowing with it.

Laurent settles beside the man who won him this fort. He rests his elbows on the battlements and the gesture itself is surreal in its nonchalance. This is Ravenel, his walls Laurent's to lean upon.

Slipping into conversation has never been an issue for them, and the Akielon would be delighted if he knew how often Laurent can hear his reprimands in his head. Like Auguste's. Sometimes, in their stead.  

Tonight, with the light of the torches a faint echo of the fire of their room at Nesson-Eloy, the Akielon speaks of his father and his father's ideas, and his own, and how they've changed.

Laurent thinks of the first time they met in Arles, the Akielon's face contorted in betrayed, stupefied rage, and wishes he could soothe the creases between his brows.

They've done a careful job of bending and coiling the truth of their positions, but there's never been outright dishonesty between them.

Until now.

"Laurent, I am your slave," Damianos of Akielos says, a contradiction in five words, as if a slave would ever dare addressing him by his first name alone, without honorifics.  

The lie slashes through the last of Laurent's shields and, exposed, blundering, Laurent lets himself fall.

The world doesn't shake as they kiss. The fort doesn't tremble. The stars don't fall from the sky. After the first gentle press of lips, Laurent is still standing. Still whole.

The Akielon touches him like trying to walk on sand without leaving footprints.  

"Your Highness -"

Jord comes into view as Laurent and the Akielon break apart. One thing is immediately evident in his clenched jaw and the flash of disgust as he looks at the Akielon.

Jord knows.

 

*

Aimeric. Of course.  

Had Laurent been so naive to think his Uncle's machinations may give him an evening of respite?

Laurent works through the steps of regaining his breath, bent over the table in an empty room at the top of a tower, at his feet nothing but scattered plates and the crushed remnants of dignity Aimeric left here, and will never get back.

Aimeric, stupid, pretty Aimeric. Collateral damage, to his own father, to Laurent's Uncle, to Laurent. So unimportant that the lashing Laurent has just delivered on him wasn't even for his sake.

It was for Jord. For years of loyalty and trust tainted for a pretty face and a tight ass. Had those been his Uncle's instructions? Was Jord always supposed to end up Captain, so Aimeric could target the man Laurent cared for the most? It would have been an easy inference. Laurent would either get rid of Govart, or not make it past Nesson.

It was for the Akielon. The idiot, stalling, acting as if they could simply -- resume, with every tightening of Jord's fists shouting Prince-killer into the void, the truth a jagged, sharp fence between them.

The truth had always been there, but it had taken someone else knowing for Laurent to feel the shame, the naked cruelty of what the Akielon was doing, and Laurent was allowing.

An hour passes. Laurent finds himself curled against a wall, his knees to his chest.

Nobody disturbs him, and he knows it's the Akielon's doing. Damen's doing.

He thinks of Auguste, begging for counsel as he's done for as long as he's had conscious memories, but behind his eyelids blond, flowing locks merge with brown curls, and sharp cheekbones with straight, Akielon noses. He clings to his memories of Auguste's voice like a man hanging from a rope, but the counsel, when it comes, is spoken in husky, warm tones. It's not even in Veretian.  

Another hour has passed. Dawn approaches: if Laurent waits any longer, he won't get to make a choice at all.

Laurent imagines time running out, and it's that, the violent clamping of his throat, in the end, what forces him to his feet.

The slave will leave in the morning. Past Laurent's defences, past the border, he won't be a slave anymore. The official version may erase this time completely, as often happens in history.

There won't be consequences beyond tonight.

Laurent pushes the door open. In his rooms, his Captain awaits his reward.

 

*

 

The Akielon perseveres in being contrary to Laurent's predictions to an extent that Laurent can't wrap his mind around. It's not saying much: on his back, with the Akielon's mouth between his legs, he can hardly wrap his mind around his own name.

It couldn't - he didn't - it shouldn't be like this.

Laurent clutches the sheets, terrified. The Akielon's not the problem. Laurent is. His own reactions, the way his mind and body have lost their shape under the Akielon's hands, and the Akielon could mould them as he wishes, pull Laurent apart with a thumb against his thigh.

It had been just Laurent taking him in hand, at the beginning. That had been calculated. Laurent had come here with purpose, after all. You stroke a man's cock, he'll come, like overturning a full bucket.  

Then it had been kissing. Unhurried, undemanding kissing, and the kissing hadn't stopped, not while Damen fumbled through undoing his laces with an hesitancy that hadn't happened in a month, not while Damen undid laces he'd never been allowed to go near before. It had simply moved, kisses turning into something else on their way down, as if it wasn't demeaning, and act of surrender of power.

What surrender? The Akielon could command him with a single flick of his tongue. Laurent has to push his head to the side, would bite the sheets if he could. He feels the pressure of his release and, with it, a tug of familiar panic, incongruous but unforgotten. Boys aren't supposed to come.

The need heightens, pleasure tarnished with the pressure of Laurent's self-imposed restraint, it builds up and then - it stops. Like blowing on a candle.

It's finished, until the Akielon looks up at him and there's no trace of it ending at all. No approval or disapproval of any kind. The Akielon wants to know what Laurent wants. Infuriatingly, insistently, as if Laurent could browse a list and point his finger to one, like picking a sword out of an inventory.

"Inside you," the Akielon says, not like a place to be conquered, but an offering.

Would you let me fuck you?, Laurent would ask, to be difficult, to throw the Akielon off, but the Akielon's every gesture burns with a devoted sort of desperation, and Laurent feels, pushing the boundaries of any logic, that the Akielon would say, Yes.

He feels, a dazing crack in his very core, that the Akielon is asking because he would - would do anything Laurent wants, and that's not - Laurent didn't plan for this. He can't think. He's seen brains spilled out of their skulls after battle, melted by the sun. He imagines his to look quite like them.  

He can't keep his eyes open, not with the Akielon above him, more bared than he's ever been. This was supposed to be for you, Laurent would shout if he had any voice left. Why won't you take it?

On his chest, when he turns, Laurent buries his face in the sheets. His legs fall into a familiar arrangement, his muscles braced for the weight they'll have to withstand. Laurent is intimately aware of what comes next.

Except the Akielon won't stop fucking talking. With a hand curled against his hip, he asks him if he's ever done this before.  

"Yes," Laurent says. No, he thinks, as the Akielon drags his palm, like a painter would a brush, from his tailbone to the nape of his neck. No, I don't even know what this is.

The Akielon rolls him over, on his back. He glances down at Laurent's cock, hard and straining. Laurent's been hard from the beginning and that, too - he doesn't usually let himself. The Akielon looks back at him with amused, warm surprise. Had he thought Laurent no longer wanted this? The Akielon has always been an idiot.

Laurent would fidget if he were certain he still has bones in his body. If he remembered how to use them.

They'd be done by now if the Akielon didn't insist on being so stubbornly careful.

 

*

 

Laurent blinks awake to the sweet light of the early morning, and to Damen. His body's buoyant, his movements only barely calculated, relishing in his freedom to touch, to kiss, to leave his mark on Damen. Not as a sign of propriety. A souvenir, maybe.

Laurent pushes Damen down on the mattress, the same outward gesture that had started everything last night, while Laurent had kneeled, clothed, on the bed and had drawn Damen to completion with his wrist. It had been the only part of Damen he'd dared to touch for a long time, well past the first time Damen had sunk into him, where Laurent had felt he was going to crawl out of his skin if he'd pushed his hands past their spot tangled behind Damen's neck, pressing on the golden cuff.  

They kiss: with their mouths, parted, panting, and with every point of contact, every inch of Laurent's thighs against Damen's hips, every curl coiling between his fingers. The meaning of the word itself has been redefined. The meaning of the world.

His cock fills and lengthens against Damen's hip and Laurent relishes in the guttural whine it coaxes out of Damen's throat.  

"Would you," Laurent says, an aborted invitation. Damen's hard, too, his heat a maddening pull underneath Laurent.

Damen's fingertips find Laurent's cheek, his touch always half tenderness, half disbelief. "Am I affecting your memories? You've just said, you need to go riding."

"Yes," says Laurent. "That's what I was suggesting."

Damen laughs from a place deep in his belly, and Laurent has to put his open palm there, and trail it up, to Damen's neck. Damen engulfs him into his arms, into his warmth, until they lie, chest against chest, mouth against mouth, as if life now was nothing but an interval between a kiss and the next. Laurent feels mollified, foam where he thought he was steel.

"Pass me the oil," says Damen, gentle, knuckles tracing the notches of Laurent's spine with the languid sluggishness of pure ease.

Laurent reaches for the vial on the night stand, his back arching, and Damen grabs it from him.   

Damen smears it on his palm without looking, eyes on Laurent. His confidence has him shivering, and leaking at the tip. Laurent wonders if he'll ever feel cold again.

After his palm, his cock, a wide bobbing from base to head that has Laurent's attention fracturing -

And breaking, completely, when that same bold, slippery grip is applied not where Laurent was expecting it, but on his pulsating length.

Laurent's lids flutter closed as his mouth opens around a small gasp.

"What are you," Laurent's not even sure he's speaking out loud, "doing."

"Being a responsible Captain," Damen says, taking them both in one of those overlarge pawns he calls hands.

"You're not my Captain anymore," but it's a blur of a sentence, Damen's hips thrusting beneath Laurent's spread, open thighs, abandoned like during their first time, near their shared climax, and slow, like the second, fucking not like chasing, but savouring.

Damen's free hand dips past his back and curves where Laurent's flesh is softest, pulling, a delicate encouragement. Laurent's knees have little purchase on the sheets, the extent of his movements a subtle twist of his hips. The thought of fucking alongside Damen's cock with abandon is enough for his breath to shorten and his stomach to coil.

Damen, who must have felt it, stupid, attentive Damen, brings his strokes to almost a halt. "No," he murmurs into Laurent's hair, "only what you want, whatever you want, Laurent -"

Laurent, because Damen needs to shut up if they have any hope of coming at the same time, uses one hand as leverage on Damen's shoulder and adds the other to the sleek point of joining between their bodies. He looks at Damen as he does, delighted with the surprised widening of his brown eyes, the slacking of his jaw. Damen has proved his stamina at length last night, but his receptivity to Laurent purposely pleasuring him is still as unrestrained. His attempts to delay his climax are as heady as the act itself.  

"Already?" says Laurent. "Maybe I should have kept some of Halvik's hakesh."

And then, in the periphery of his mind that's not preoccupied with the slide of their palms, and the slide of their cocks, he feels Damen's hand, his other hand, wet with drops of residual oil, slip behind him and, daringly, nudge inside him.

His hips jerk, a violent, irrepressible reaction, and they spill, together. Blood rushes to Laurent's head like he's been turned upside down.

Laurent pushes a leg over the edge of the bed, not quite collected enough to stand yet, but a hand on his wrist stops him.

He turns to face Damen, then, quickly, the ceiling. Outside, the sounds of preparations is still dim, but growing louder: soon the whole fort will wake, and their time will be up.

"Ever do something without preparing for the next move?" the Akielon asks, thumb circling Laurent's pulse point.

"Like you? No."

"You're wrong." The Akielon speaks into Laurent's neck, then rolls on the bed to fetch something on the other night stand. "I'm learning," and presses a wet cloth to Laurent's stomach. He washes him with the simplicity with which he does everything else in bed. There's no struggle. To him, it's just a gesture, a quirk he doesn't mind indulging.  

When he's done with Laurent, he scrubs the dirt from his own belly with fast, economical strokes. With Laurent, he'd handled the cloth like polishing precious jewelry.  

"Do you require anything else?" A tender mocking.

"No," says Laurent. His voice carries no consistency. "That was -"

He feels the birth of laughter and he smashes his palm against Damen's mouth before he can open it. "Don't say it."

"Adequate," Damen exhales against his hand, and then he kisses it, and then he tangles their fingers together and rests them on the mattress so he can kiss him.

The Akielon falls back asleep like this, drifting between one lazy kiss and a caress, their bodies so close they could both fit in a slave pallet. Their time runs out in the space of one deepening breath.  

Laurent is careful as he extracts each limb from the bedding. After that, he races. His most urgent, persistent thought, I can't be here when he wakes.

He bathes, his sinews pulling with the sweet ache of the previous night. The hot water soothes it, but is powerless against the profound shift in the back of his chest, like the hollow between his heart and lungs has expanded to contain something Laurent has no name for, nor does he care for one.  

It's that - thing, that has him halting under the arch of the door.  

The Akielon sleeps with a frown on his face, his arms wrapped in bedding, as though he'd scrambled for the solid warmth of a body when Laurent had left him. The harsher light of mid morning has the wide planes of his brown thighs shining with gold. His muscles would make a painter weep, their edges protruding as if even his skin could only surrender in its failed attempt at containment.

Laurent is unsure of when he'd taken the blow to the head that has him thinking like this. He knows he has to leave, he's not himself here, but the self he's here has him longing, Stay with him. You've seen him wavering last night.

He goes back, his knee against the edge of the mattress, because he has to see him one last time. The man who lies in his bed will be discarded with his cuffs and collar. Laurent hopes he'll be granted with the same kind of release.

He allows himself one caress, fingertips on the warm cheek, rough with the hint of hair, his defiant jaw, the gold collar, nicked by Touars' sword, the clean cut of the scar at his shoulder. The Akielon's expressions softens in his slumber.

Laurent heads straight for the door this time. He leaves the bedchamber with a stack of parchment in his hands.

On every letter, a single paragraph:

Lord Touars was killed at Hellay with a thousand of the Regent's men. Damianos of Akielos lives.

 

*

 

Laurent is two steps behind.  

Nicaise. Charcy.

Laurent has always been two steps behind.

The severed head had been so ruined by the heat and the journey that, briefly, Laurent had wanted to crouch down next to it and inspect it in every detail. Nicaise has a beauty spot behind his left ear. Would Laurent have found it, if he'd looked? Or was there a chance – but no. Nicaise didn't have the privilege of an Akielon advisor who always seems to know the right answer. He would have shown all his cards at once, too eager to play, like that night with the earring and the slaves.

His Uncle had been planning to cut Laurent's head off since he'd left Arles. And Laurent remembers this: his Uncle had always enjoyed a warm up.

He'd ordered Nicaise be given a proper burial before he left. Aimeric, too.

In regular circumstances, Aimeric might have been transported to Fortaine, where his family could mourn him and hold the traditional exequies.  

Laurent needs a way to get into Fortaine. The plan had taken shape in his mind as simply as if he'd had a lock in front of him, and a key in his hands: they would have opened the gates for Aimeric's corpse. Had shame stopped him? Nicaise's hollowed eyes? The Akielon slave, and his disapproval as they had strolled through the entrance at Ravenel? I didn't do it, he'd wanted to scream, like a child. I'm not my Uncle. But all he had to show for it was a collection of dead bodies.  

In the end, he'd just ridden off.

The day is beginning to darken around Laurent and his troop, the air hotter than it was two nights ago, at Ravenel. They're getting closer to the sea. Closer to Delfeur, closer to Akielos.  

Has Nikandros of Delpha knelt in front of the Akielon slave yet?

The horrible sound of hooves that aren't theirs has Laurent tightening his grip on the reins, his eyes flashing to the source. Where are his outriders?

Laurent needn't worry about access, for it's Fortaine that finds him.

He's always been two steps behind.

 

*

 

"This is," Laurent purses his lips, "unnecessary."

"As was tearing your fresh stitches, Your Highness." Paschal pushes on his shoulder – the shoulder that hasn't had a knife in it recently - to keep him on the stretcher. That's also unnecessary, since Laurent hasn't actually moved.

This salve has the tart smell of spoiled fruit. The Akielon's salves smelled pleasantly of cinnamon, Laurent thinks, then, pointedly, unthinks it.

The man that stood before Laurent in his tent, Laurent doesn't know him. He feels betrayal like poisoned water in his mouth, and its irrationality only heightens it. He knew from the beginning. He didn't know at all. He -

"Did he do this?" Paschal asks, his voice like the hand massaging the balm over the new set of stitches.

He doesn't mean the knife wound. He doesn't mean Govart. He means who poked his thumb into the wound hard enough for it to gape and bleed again.

"Who? The King of Akielos? You can say his name. We'll be hearing it incessantly from now on."

"Did you know?" A confirmation, more than a question.

Laurent snorts. It pulls at the unsteady tendons in his shoulder. "Did you not?"

"I knew he was of high rank." Then, slowly, "I knew, whoever he was, you didn't want it known."

Laurent closes his eyes as Paschal starts wrapping the bandages around his arm.

"You mustn't exert yourself," says Paschal in the silence of the tent. "You're lucky the muscles remained attached to your bones."

"We have different definitions of luck," says Laurent, a monotone drawl. Govart is dead. Guion's loyalty is that of a brothel whore. Laurent has one night to devise something that'll make an army of proud Akielons forget he left them to die at his Uncle's mercy at Charcy. He opens his eyes. "Akielos is made of men who won't respect me unless I exert myself."

Paschal fastens the dressing with a pin on his shoulder, much like the one that secures a chiton. He says, "But we're not in Akielos yet."

 

*

 

Laurent spends the night looking at the cuff. Touching the cuff. Slipping his fingertips beneath the cuff.

The uneven weight throws him off, a hyper awareness of his left wrist he will have to learn to cope with.

The cuff has been altered and trimmed to fit Laurent's wrist (probably; it was either that or make him wear the Akielon's collar as a belt). It speaks of a greater degree premeditation than what Laurent expected after their meeting yesterday.

Laurent's gaze slips to the space on the floor next to his bed. The pressure on his wrist makes the emptiness more acute.  

You knew who I was the night we made love.

The cuff distracts him from the tug in his shoulder. Small victories.

 

*

 

The Akielon's eyes stick to him like fleas on a horse.

They're there when their next destination is announced, as if Laurent may not have known it was going to be Marlas. During the ride, a flickering gaze to his profile, his injured shoulder, then stubbornly back to the road in front of them, as they ride side to side in a phony but necessary display of unity. In the hall at Marlas, as Laurent takes a leisurely stroll in between a display of two dozen slaves.

His pick is obvious: brown skin, a head of dark curls. The irritated clenching of the Akielon's fists is almost worth it, and further proof that the Akielon's judgment is clouded by Ravenel.

The only person Isander reminds Laurent of is Erasmus.

 

*

 

As an addendum to the list of things the Akielon is doing wrong, he is, in a move devoid of any political logic, not making use of slaves.  

Further items on the list: bestowing Laurent with the long, longing glances of a rejected suitor. Not denying their fucking to a roomful of bannermen that need to be reassured they're standing in front of the righteous King of Akielos, and not a pet of the Veretian Prince. Killing the brother of said Prince.

Laurent leans back into his hands, the gravel of the stone leaving marks into his palms. The night sky above him looks the same in Akielos as it did in Vere. The ruins he's sitting on don't belong to either.

He wonders if, beneath the flourishing grass, the earth is still drenched with Auguste's blood.

 

*

 

The first sword Laurent had held had been Auguste's.  

"It might be taller than you are, little brother," Auguste had said, prying it from Laurent's (incorrect) grip.  

He'd been trained in swordsmanship since a young age at the insistence of his father, who'd hoped, foolishly, that wielding three pounds of wood four days a week could remodel his pedantic second son into something more proper than a scholar.

But Auguste loved swordplay, and Laurent would have done anything to spend more time with his brother. Even sit through hours of practice.

By the time war was declared, and picking up a sword was no longer just an aristocratic divertissement, the fluid dexterity of Auguste's technique was engraved in Laurent's mind like the steps of a dance.  

For years after his death, Laurent couldn't picture his brother losing. The truth of the events clashed with the truth of what Laurent had witnessed on the sawdust and in battle. Auguste had never lost a fight. For years, and through grueling practices to carve his body to excel at something it had never been meant for, he'd held onto the belief that Damianos's fatal stroke had been a barbaric, dishonourable fluke.

Then, he'd seen the Akielon with a sword in his hands.

(and out of his hands, flung from a distance into the man who would have killed Laurent, like throwing a dart to a tavern board)

He's seeing him now, in the empty training arena at Marlas, swinging his sword at nothing because ghosts can't be cut. Hours ago, at the raided village, he'd almost ran a sword though Laurent's neck.

"There's me," Laurent says, when the Akielon, finally, notices him. He goes to pick up a sword from the display on the wall; it's not like the Akielon will say no to a fight. To this fight. Not in the state he's in.

The Akielon's skin is slick with sweat, his sandals caked with the dirt of the sawdust. He's been here a long time. It's only fair: they said Auguste had been fighting for hours, while Damianos had been fresh.

On cue, it's Damianos who attacks first.  

The first part is the easy one. Level the field, Auguste used to say. When you're at a disadvantage, level the field. Chances are, your opponent won't be as clever as you. The first part is to get them tired. Laurent has more stamina than most.  

Not more than the Akielon.  

The Akielon possesses an instinctual physicality that makes him dangerous in ways Laurent can't predict. Where Laurent is brisk and elegant parries, he expected Damianos to be brutal shows of strength. If he doesn't get overwhelmed by Laurent's speed, strength would win him this fight. With a flare of irritation, Laurent realises that Damianos isn't doing it because he's busy enjoying himself.

Laurent would cut him down just for having to entertain that thought alone. As it is, when he finds himself empty-handed with his back on the dirt, it's what has him grabbing a handful of dust and throwing it in the general direction of Damianos’s complacent face.

Level the field. Maybe this will make the Akielon angry enough to see Laurent as the opponent he is.

While Damianos had been doing mindless drills, Laurent was studying the room. He knows where to find every bench, every piece of armoury, and how to use them to keep the Akielon from taking the final step toward victory. Damianos’s body is faster than his mind, and Laurent's mind is faster than both. This is a real fight. Etiquette has no place in a deadly match.

Next, a knife - like throwing a dart at a tavern board. But Damianos’s sword swats it away, a minor annoyance, and he's on Laurent again, his footwork unruffled, his strokes just as precise.

Laurent's shoulder throbs. The wall at his back comes almost as a relief, but he can't let go now. He reaches for another knife, and Damianos beats it out of his hand. He tries, with his arm at Damianos’s throat, with his knee, with his entire body, until, finally, he hits the ground, and even then, the knife, close enough to reach -

His last movements blur one onto the next, driven by pure impulse. The ending doesn't change. On his back, with Damianos’s knee pressed into his stomach and Damianos’s hands like cuffs around his wrists, Laurent feels anger like flames enveloping them both.

But fires die out when they find nothing to latch on to.

When they stand, Damen picks up the knife.  

(Laurent has thought of revenge every single day for six years, and not once for the last months. He'd wonder when he'd stopped, but he knows - )

He thrusts it into Laurent's hand, closes his own hand around it.

(- it was when he'd realised - )

He guides the tip to his stomach.

(- Damen would let him.)

A mirror image. A mess of furniture around them, and Laurent in a white dress shirt, with a hazy mind and his life miraculously intact.  

He's not you. The man I wanted to kill is not you. You are - The knife tumbles to the ground with a hollow sound.

Damianos steps back, not because of the knife. His hand is still around Laurent’s wrist.  

He flees the room with his mouth parted around something he won't dare saying.  

Alone in the wrecked arena, Laurent, involuntarily, insanely, brings his fingers to his lips.  

 

*

 

Returning to his usual composure proves... challenging.

Damianos, of course, plops down on the throne next to his with a goblet in his hand and no apparent care that holding games to farther camaraderie between their men is pointless if half of the men aren't present.

Makedon is defecting. The King of Akielon motions for more wine, and announces the start of the games.

Everything Damianos does has Laurent on edge. Laurent can't let himself be lulled by the cozy, feigned ignorance he'd relied upon in Vere. He'd been cocky enough to think he could just seal back the hole he'd let the Akielon slave slash into years of cultivated seclusion.  

Sometimes Laurent doesn't know himself as well as he thinks he does.

Now, he lives in a state of constant duality. Proximity is unbearable, distance is torture. Every breath is a paradox.  

Damianos, standing and letting his chiton fall to the ground, coating his chest with oil and wrestling a youth into awestruck surrender. The intimate knowledge of his heat, of being in another kind of hold.

Damianos, standing and exposing Laurent's brutality for his army to see.

Laurent recalls the lashes almost one by one. At the time he'd thought that was pleasure.

 

*

 

At first, Laurent isn't quite convinced griva was intended for sociable consumption and not as weapon. After the third glass, Laurent no longer holds any concerns. About anything. His entire worldview has narrowed to two things: not puking and Damianos, and even Damianos gets a bit obscured when Makedon shoves the fourth glass into his hand.

Makedon didn't defect, on condition that Laurent proved his worth as future King. It is common knowledge, of course, that circular riding, spear throwing and wine handling are essentials of the pedigree of a King.

Nevermind that Makedon's head was still attached to his neck thanks to him. It wasn't even a hassle – Laurent had been practicing throwing spears from horseback since Makedon had first tried to goad him at Fortaine. He should have done the same with wine. How did he forget about the wine?

Laurent truly does not enjoy wine. Griva is tolerable, if one is on the brink of death and needs to be revived.

Makedon grows more loquacious with each glass (there are a lot of glasses). He's in a reminiscing mood. A small mercy, as Laurent finds it increasingly prudent to keep his mouth shut, lest he spills his guts on the King of Akielos and his bannermen.  

Damianos remains at his side the entire night, placidly reclined with the expanse of his thighs spread and on display. Laurent has touched those thighs at some point in time. Like tree trunks coated in velvet.  

His hands itch to touch them again, and that's when Makedon announces he's retiring. The room clears before Laurent can be caught fondling the King of Akielos.

Now, if only he could remember which way to stand up.

It's Damianos who helps him up. Laurent feels he has no body at all, just a floating head, but he must, because Damianos wraps one of his tree trunk arms around him.

They speak as they walk outside the hall and toward Laurent's chambers. Probably. Laurent hopes Damianos knows where they're going, because he can hardly tell which direction is the floor and which is the ceiling.

Damianos smiles and Laurent feels it again. The duality. A paradox, every breath. He's saying something about Auguste. Damianos always makes him want to speak of Auguste, because Laurent loved Auguste, and he's in -

Damianos's pulse spikes under the hand Laurent has on his neck, or maybe it's his own pulse. They've made it to Laurent's apartments. Laurent recognizes the change in light.

It'd be so easy to push into the hands around him. Laurent has forgotten why he isn't supposed to, but he knows that, at least.

His arm is no longer on Damianos's shoulder. Laurent stares at it like it isn't his. There are very many laces.

"Attend me," he says. Damianos stands before him and unties each lace from its eyelet with practiced precision. It hasn't always been like this. Go slower, Laurent wants to say. He had Isander do the same thing yesterday, because it had seemed like a cruelty not to. Laurent doesn't want to be cruel.  

Isander had fumbled in a manner so Akielon Laurent had almost cried, if crying was a thing Laurent did.

"I miss you," Laurent says. He's been stripped of the jacket. He's been stripped of everything else. "I miss our conversations."

He swims to the bed, or he's brought there. Wine, a mattress. It's a routine he knows.

As his lids slip shut, he can see the shadow of a figure in the room.

"Yes, Uncle," he mumbles, and lets sleep take him. His Uncle usually doesn't mind.

 

*

 

One afternoon: the length of the campaign he and Damianos have spent days and wits assembling.  

Laurent had sensed the incongruity since they'd stepped into Karthas and found the fort abandoned. A free conquest is never a good sign with his Uncle. Then, the herald, demanding Laurent come to Ios to stand trial in front of the council. Might as well have added, noose around the neck optional, but recommended.

Laurent had few blissful moments to speculate how, exactly, his Uncle was going to force his hand to go to Ios without an army at his back. Then, with the timing of an executioner, Jokaste, and a child.

It doesn't matter if it it's Damen's child (it will matter to Damen, though, and that does matter) or Kastor's. It could be the spawn of the lowest servant in Ios and sending it to his Uncle would still put an end to all of Laurent's efforts.

His Uncle knew this when he gave him Nicaise's head as a spoil of war. No more innocent blood on Laurent's hands.  

Laurent would rather die.

 

*

 

Afterwards, Laurent experiences Damen's aching like his own. He keeps guard to his privacy, allows Damen to mourn in solitude. To be betrayed by someone you thought loved you is a hurt Laurent is intimately familiar with.  

He waits until evening falls before slipping into the room. Restraint becomes absurd after that.

To surrender is hard and easy at once, like walking for days in tight boots and struggling to regain your footing once you're finally barefoot. It hollows him out, every piece of him laid out, needs and desires he didn't know he possessed.

Not just -- sexual.

Touches. Words. He hugs Damen and could snap in half from it alone.

He does snap, maybe. They kiss, they fuck, they talk, and Laurent thinks of the tight boots again: how you shouldn't take them off, because you won't manage to put them back on.  

 

*

 

They have to retrieve the child. To retrieve the child, they need to take Jokaste to Ios to meet with the wet nurse. To ensure the affair will involve no bloodshed, the exchange will occur at the Kingsmeet, the only place in Akielos in which it's a crime to draw a sword.  

The only place in Akielos in which his Uncle may get close to Laurent without Damen killing him first.

Laurent can appreciate the neatness of the plan. His only hope is that his Uncle will stay too fixated on putting Laurent's head on a spike on the walls of Ios to notice Damianos's superior army surrounding them, and, once Damen's name is cleared, where the loyalty of the palace guard will stand. He's going to regret giving Damen to Laurent up to his last breath.

But first, the practicality of it. Laurent finds Damen hunched over the map in their chamber, one finger tracing and retracing over the same strip of land.

"What?" he asks, standing at Damen's side. A hand behind Damen's neck, half into his curls, which landed there as casually as Damen's arm around his leg, fingers brushing his calf. The intimacy so new Laurent still has to bite his lip to keep from flushing.

Damen is still staring at the map. "Every sentry will be on alert. We won't get past them without the wagons being searched.  We won't get past the border without running into a sentry." A look upwards. "You don't seem worried. Are you hiding a ship in your tent?"

Laurent leans into Damen's touch. "A ship won't be necessary."

"If the plan is to hit Jokaste on the head with the hilt of a sword, Nikandros already suggested it."

"No," amusedly. "Jokaste will tell them exactly what we want her to say."

"How?"

"You know I'm fond of disguises."

With a smirk, his grip tightening around Laurent's calf. "Do you plan to use the earring again?"

"No, but it's from Nesson, too." Laurent savours the pleasure of seeing Damen's eyes widen. "It's a good thing you have a type."

 

*

 

They make it past the border, and some.

 

*

 

He finds her under the shade on the riverbank, sitting elegantly on a flat rock, but with one foot outside the lovely confines of her embroidered silk mules, her toes dipped into the cool streaming water.

"Come," she says. "Neither of us were made for this climate."

Loyse of Fortaine speaks to him not as her prince, but as a twenty year old boy. As he shrugs off his sandals, Laurent thinks, If I were married to Guion, I'd lose all respect for rank too.

"I was wondering when you'd come to see me."

"I'm here to give you my condolences," Laurent says.

"No, you're not. But thank you."

"He was under my responsibility. His death is on me," Laurent says. He's not here for this, but he can't shake the urge. Not for atonement: there's no atoning for what he's done. For accountability, maybe. He thinks of Nicaise's head, dropped from horseback onto the ground like a morbid trophy of war. People are not pawns.

"Yes," says Loyse with the same calm demeanour. "You know why he did it, don't you?"

Laurent nods.

"Then you know his death is also on your uncle. On his father, who enabled it. On me, who let it happen. And yet, none of us dragged the blade on his wrists."

Didn't I? It feels like I did. But Laurent doesn't say it. His guilt is nothing to Loyse.

Hands envelope his wrist, and Laurent almost recoils. He thinks, ridiculously, about their lack of chaperone.

Her touch is kind, composed like the rest of her, but the determined look she lays on him betrays her anger. "Will you kill the Regent when you take the throne?"

Immediately, "Yes." If he doesn’t, Damen will.

"Then you have my testimony."

She draws her hands back into her lap.

Laurent stands. He slips his feet back into his sandals. He's finished here, but he can't quite seem to walk away. He's no stranger to losing family.  

"One of the soldiers, Jord. He was the Captain before Ravenel. He loved Aimeric. I believe Aimeric loved him back. You may find speaking to him," he pauses, unsure of the phrasing, "comforting."  

The word tastes absurd in his mouth, but wasn't that what he had wanted after Auguste died? Someone he could reminisce Auguste with?

Loyse stares at him in a way Laurent is unable to decipher. "Thank you, Your Highness."

 

*

 

Anything can be approached like a puzzle, a set of pieces to assemble. Sex is no different.  

Laurent is far from frigid (although, he had, for a time, wished to be), but he's not good at spontaneity. With all the Charls nonsense today, and the broken wagon, and escaping discovery by a hair's breadth, they've relied enough on luck for today.

He and Damen get to share a real bed – with a bath, and bedding, and a fire -, and Laurent can appreciate the poetry of last chances.  

He kneels for Damen because he won't let his Uncle be the only person he's done this for. He goes into it like the chore it used to be, and expects the images to blur, but they don't.

The leg he rests his palm on is too solid to remind him of anyone else. He's slept next to the clean smell of a newly bathed Damen for too many nights to mistake it. The sounds, the hands aching to touch but struggling to sit against the wall because Laurent asked that of Damen. A kaleidoscopical dissonance of senses that has Laurent swell between his legs and shake, disoriented, when it's over and he's swallowed and Damen still wants to touch him, and kiss him and look at him like a traveller to a star.

 

*

 

There are six days of travel between the inn in Mellos and the Kingsmeet.

Don’t think, Damen had asked of him when they’d reconciled. Laurent finds it easy to oblige.

His mind is made, and every piece of his puzzle will fall into place in time.

So he lets himself indulge into Damen’s little fantasy of a journey through Akielos, lets Damen show him landscapes and feed him delicacies. Lets them both dream of a world in which their days of falling asleep next to each other aren’t numbered.

Some days of travel are too tiring to even say a proper goodnight, but tonight Laurent has his eyes wide open on the vastness of the Akielon night sky, and one hand clutched into Damen’s.

Damen keeps their joined hands on his warm chest, fingers sliding in and out of Laurent’s in a languid, unhurried rhythm.

“Did you see it coming?” asks Damen during a lull in their idle conversation, his thumb slipping underneath Laurent’s cuff.

“Not at all,” Laurent answers. “You have a remarkable aptitude for taking me by surprise.”

He says it because it’s true, and because he wants to see Damen’s smile stretch into a grin, his voice deepen with smug pleasure.

And it’s the thing that terrifies me the most, he thinks but doesn’t say.

 

*

 

As a punctuation mark into Laurent's demise, his Uncle leaves him to spend the night before the trial in a cell under the palace at Ios.

Laurent will get to use it during the trial ('My Uncle, who left me to rot without proof of my guilt'). His Uncle is either completely confident (he is) or too amused by the idea of Laurent sleeping by his own piss to mind.

Or he's trying to break him ahead of time.

(as if Damen with a sword at his neck hadn't broken him enough)

All of them, probably, but who knows with his Uncle.

Laurent brings his knees to his chest and leans his head against the wall. It's filthy, but no one's going to care about the state of his hair when his head's on a spike.

He'd always thought that, if he had to, he'd die because of Damianos of Akielos. A mantra for six years, him or me.

He's not too far gone yet not to appreciate the irony.

 

*

 

The trial is barely a parody of one, with his Uncle and Kastor on the dais and, just to the side, Uncle's newest paramour sitting on a stool.

When he'd been paraded inside, like a boar after a hunt, Laurent had raised his eyebrows at the Council. You let him do this? He hopes the Council is being adequately compensated for their blindness.

Beside Kastor, Laurent can count another handful of Akielons. The soldiers lining the hall are Veretians. The soldiers handling Laurent are Veretians. If not for the lack of tapestry, one would think they're in Arles.

It's a nice army. Damen will have to break at least a sweat to decimate it.

The line of questioning his Uncle chooses is asinine. Nephew, are you ready to confess your crimes? Nephew, did you not conjure with Damianos, prince-killer and fratricide? Nephew, did you feel any remorse for the villages you had burnt to the ground? When you had your men kill Lord Touars's army? Those were Veretians lives, too.

All Laurent does, for hours, is deny.  

He came here to die, but he struggles. He resists. He does it because he won't give his Uncle the satisfaction of an easy win.  

Except - (Pretty, he'd told Aimeric at Ravenel. Now, the truth.) - he does it for late night murmurings of a summer palace, and the promise of an after, Artesian ruins shadowing them from a long-set sun. For a month of talking like kissing and three nights of kissing like being born anew.  

He does it for an idiot who came back to an enemy camp on horseback to warn Laurent that his troop was still in danger. Laurent remembers how he'd stared at him, then, (You're alive - You came back), but he wouldn't need to, because it's the same look he wears now as, in chains, he's dragged into the hall.

"No," Laurent yells, from somewhere within the depths of him, as Damen gets deposited like a war gift in front of the dais.

What little rationality Laurent retains reaches the obvious conclusion. This is his Uncle’s last move.

Laurent will confess to anything for Damen to make it out of here alive.

 

*

 

Damen is out of his mind, and probably never had anyone ever disagreeing with him before, because he seems to have no clue of what would make a compelling argument.

His apology of Laurent is the stupidest, most inane ensemble of useless words in a row that Laurent, his Uncle and most of the presents have ever heard. It will have no effect on Laurent’s standing, if not make everyone on the council a bit uncomfortable and ready to speed this charade up.

This is the man I chose to die for, Laurent thinks with a mixture of resignation and inexorable fondness.

Nothing Damen can do or say can help Laurent, yet a treacherous hope swells inside him, an ingrained response to the sight of Damen alone, to the tone of his voice.

Then, Damen brings forth Guion, and Laurent knows he’s dead.

Laurent has Loyse to stall the inevitable and ensure Damen will get to finish what they started. Damen will know to get Akielos back and move onto Vere afterwards.

If Damen can make it, it will be a victory for Laurent too.

Drops of cold sweat slide down Laurent’s back, each joint from his neck to his knees aching like rusty gears. He tells himself he’s ready for this to be over, but whenever he glances at Damen’s frown, at his desperate concern, he knows, intimately, that he could never be prepared for this ending.

If things could be different, he thinks, as Damen would, as if Damen’s proclivity for daydreams was contagious.

But Damen still isn’t done, and Laurent’s heart rattles in his chest while Damen summons another witness. There is no one else, not in Laurent’s plan. Whatever Damen has in mind is completely unscripted.

There is no one else, except there is. Paschal’s voice resounds from the back of the hall, and starts to speak.

For once, things don’t need to be different at all.

 

*

 

"Bells," says Damen. His hand is on Laurent's cheek. Laurent's hand is holding pressure on his slashed open stomach. Damen's bleeding. One good thing about bleeding: you only bleed if you're alive.

"For the new King," Damen clarifies, like this is a lecture in Akielos culture and society, then promptly tries to stand up again. The slave chain on his wristcuff holds him back.

"Don't move," Laurent shouts, and so does Nikandros, appearing at the top of the stairs.

"What happened?" In a flash, Nikandros is kneeling down on the marble floor next to Damen.  

Laurent glances at him, then at Kastor's lifeless body, impaled on a sword, then at Damen, then pointedly back at him. The scene seems self-explanatory.

"Get Paschal," Laurent orders. His hand is coated with blood.  

"He saved me," says Damen, dreamily.

"We have physicians in Akielos," says Nikandros, because he too is an idiot, but, apparently satisfied Laurent is not trying to accelerate the death of his King, he rises and takes a step back toward the palace.  

If he dies, you don't have an Akielos. If he dies -

"This isn't the time to argue with me," says Laurent. "Get Paschal, tell him Damianos has a knife wound to the stomach, get two other men." With another look at Damen's shallow breathing, "four other men."

"I can walk," says Damen.

"When I said it wasn't the time to argue with me, I meant you too."

Nikandros goes. Laurent feels so light-headed he may as well be the one bleeding.  

"Laurent." Damen puts his hand on top of the one staunching the hemorrhage. It has blood on his palm from before, when Laurent was fighting Kastor. Now Laurent's hand is coated on both sides. "I know weapon injuries. I'm not going to die." Their twin cuffs are streaked with blood too. "I may have to spend some time on bedrest. That's inevitable." And then, as if this is the best thing that's ever happened to him. "You'll have to attend me."

He hears the shuffling of feet in the distance, then Paschal is there, with Nikandros and the men Laurent requested.

Laurent uses his free hand to unchain Damen's cuff. The sound of the chain falling to the ground is drowned by the voices around them.

"We're going to free them all," Damen says, a firm promise in the last space of privacy the two of them are going to get in a while.

Laurent nods. It's impossible, but everything that happened today - everything that has happened since Damianos's delivery to Arles - was impossible.

The bells are still chiming. Damen's heartbeat is still drumming beneath Laurent's hand.

They'll find a way to make it possible.

Laurent isn't worried.  After all, it's the game he likes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Laurent has only been in the sea once.

The wave had been like wind on sheets of paper. He'd fallen and scattered, salt soaking him from the inside out.  

He'd kept his eyes open. The light had quivered in harsh shifts of greenish blueish yellow white, until the it had become an arm and the arm had brought him up to the surface.

He looks at the man in front of him. The man, the beast. His mind swims.

“You have a scar,” he says. As he speaks, his mouth fills with water, down his lungs, down his legs.

No one rescues him.

 

*

 

He abandons the slave to rot in the harem. He has him beaten. He tells himself he'll never see the slave again. That the slave doesn't matter.  

But he drinks, like a hollow, limp sack of nothing, filling to regain its shape. He drinks not to think of the slave, but the wine melts the last of his feeble restraints.

He has to see him. He's been robbed, his insides the ruins of a ransacked city. He's playing into a trap and it doesn't even matter. The years he's spent training don't matter.   

Damianos of Akielos is no more, and Laurent's sword will never find its rightful place into his filthy, barbarian heart during battle.    

The slave is never going to leave the palace alive.  

 

*  

 

If only he could read his Uncle's mind.   

 

*

 

He’d tried to let the slave’s presence be but a flicker in his peripheral vision, annoying but ignorable.  

It’s not. It’s a small sphere of lead lodged in his stomach, moving with his every breath and weighing him down.  

He’s tying his laces himself this evening. With the prospect of the ring in front of him, his jacket might as well be armour.

 

*

 

“You look constipated,” says Nicaise.  “More than usual, I mean. I heard what you've done," Nicaise crosses his limber arms in front of his tunic, a hunter counting his dead preys. "He's going to be so mad."

"And you're delighted about it?” says Laurent. “He'll be delighted too. He always is when he gets the chance to retaliate against me. I'm certain it'll make him quite... vigorous."

Nicaise's jaw hardens and Laurent can see it all, the way his heart can barely keep up with all the conflict swirling into it. He's intimate with that conflict.

"Delighted? He'll be ashamed. You couldn't resist stripping in front of the barbarian, and didn't even know what to do with it."

How could you be so reckless? , is what Laurent hears, in that blurred space between practicality and wishful thinking.

"He said no to me," Nicaise continues. "He disobeyed an order. You should have had him flayed for that."

"You're right," says Laurent, almost steadily. "See, you're getting smarter than I am."

 

*

 

Torveld of Patras is a pious man with only two apparent weaknesses.

One is well known: he's a viveur who appreciates good wine, good food, a good hunt.

The other, Laurent only has to step into the same room as him to notice.

Torveld's gaze glides upon Laurent's skin like silk on a marble statue.  

It's all too easy to seed the idea of the slave trade into his enticed mind. So easy, he stands convinced before Laurent can even realise which side has won in the battle he's been having with himself since speaking with the Akielon slave.

This is for his Uncle. Moves and countermoves.  

Laurent has no sympathy for the slaves.

 

*

 

His Uncle wishes to start a war with Akielos, but it won’t be tonight.

Not even his Uncle could predict that the yearning to fight of the Akielon slave would be stronger than his blatant desire to see Laurent beaten and killed.

It makes him want to laugh, a sizzling euphoria. A side effect of the drug.

The slave sprints out the door of Laurent’s rooms before Laurent can come up with anything more convincing. Laurent isn't himself right now. He doesn't question why the sudden disappearance of the Akielon would leave his hands from finely trembling to shaking and sweating.  

 

*

 

Laurent stands in front of the statue, aware that it might be the last time.

Tomorrow he rides to Delfeur. He has no more moves to make but one.

"He asked me to trust him," he says. "To make use of him."

Laurent comes here to make sense of what happens to him. He comes here because his only wish is to hear his brother laugh at him again.

He thinks of the mare, now buried in the field just outside his family's crypt.

"Would you forgive me, brother?" he asks, an empty provocation. "If Uncle wins, would you forgive me?"

 

*

 

Their first stop is at Chastillon, to pick up whatever delinquents his Uncle decided to grace Laurent's campaign with.

Between Govart, the Akielon slave riding like he's moments away from delivering an inspirational speech to the troops, and whoever's coming next, Laurent's stomach hardly has the time to turn at the sight of his Uncle's apartments.

 

*

 

"Do you have any objections?"

The slave sits opposite to Laurent, a map between them. Is he already regretting putting down the knife?

"What do you want to discuss?" the slave says, eventually.  

"My Uncle would have us ride in a straight line to Delfeur. A week at most, with a good pace."

"We're not going to make it in one week."

Laurent can't keep his mouth from twitching. "You haven't seen the men ride yet."

"I don't need to." The Akielon sits with an elbow on the back of the chair, nonchalant, as if discussing military strategies with his Master was akin to lounging in front of the camp by the fire. "You told me about your uncle. What do you want to do?"

"Arrive to Delfeur alive."

The Akielon sighs, leans closer to the map. "It's not going to be easy."

"No. But you’ll get me there.”

 

*

 

When Laurent comes back that night - after riding, and screaming, and giving in when his thoughts skipped from if to how -, the slave is lying on his pallet.

The soft orange light of the candles plays tricks on Laurent's mind, on the slave's skin, until he no longer looks like a slave, or an enemy, or a threat at all.

It isn't any different from how things were at Arles. But his barbarian honesty is rawer, slices through Laurent's skin and settles around his exposed bones.

It was one of the slave’s lectures ( now, you have to act now ) that gave him a wild, outrageous, impossible idea.

His Uncle has allied with Akielos. But not – not all of Akielos.

Laurent writes the letter.

He hopes it's comprehensible. It's in a language he never thought he'd get to use.

 

*

 

"We should stop before someone pukes their entire guts," says the Akielon slave, bringing his horse next to Laurent's. It's their third day at Nesson. The sky is starting to pale, the horizon blushing with red.

Laurent inclines his head in the direction of Aimeric. "Too late." But he waves his hand at Jord, newly captained, to disperse the men.  

They rode off without their helmets, abandoned on the ground as they spoke. The wind is gentle on Laurent's skin. Surely gentler than on the Akielon's curls.

Flattened by the long hours beneath the helmet, glistening with sweat, his hair hangs on his head with the same floppiness of Paschal's hat.

Laurent pulls his horse to a stop, his lips pursed.

"What?" asks the Akielon, his voice slightly hoarse, a corner of his mouth lifted.

"You should ask someone to cut your hair."

"I thought you disliked me looking too Veretian."

"I'll dislike it even more if you accidentally kill someone because of your fringe," says Laurent. "Aimeric is worrisome enough."

"Aimeric will become a lot less worrisome soon," the Akielon says, brazen. It takes him a few seconds to realised he's been gossiping with the Prince.

"Good for Jord," says Laurent, savouring every ounce of embarrassment.

 

*

 

Laurent throws the cards at Volo. "Another round," he insists.

"You've lost all your coin, pet," says Volo, but he starts shuffling the cards anyway. "You should go to your Master about that."

"I have my earring." Laurent dangles the two sapphires with his fingers. "And if I win, I get your cap."

Volo gives a laugh tinged with wine. "Deal, pet."

Two minutes later, Laurent is stashing the woollen cap in his belt.

The loss doesn't diminish Volo's giddiness in the slightest as he orders drinks for himself and Laurent.

Laurent takes the cup in his hands and stands up, his eyes drawn automatically to the other side of the room.

Damen sits by himself, his plate almost finished. He looks due for a refill.

 

*

 

Paschal's tent is quiet and empty. The wounded have been tended, the dead buried.

After a night spent thinking, Laurent has come for answers. He knows one thing about yesterday's attack: it was an inside job, and the traitor's still among them.

"Yesterday morning,” Laurent says. “Tell me who died, and how."

Paschal's report is brief and succinct. At the end of it, Laurent has suspects, but no certainties. He's overlooking something, a clue. Traitors always give themselves away.

Paschal says, cautiously, "The Akielon wasn't here when the fight broke out."

"No," says Laurent, an answer to an unasked question. "He was running an errand for me. He came back."

"He did." Paschal stares at him from under his hat.

Laurent walks the few paces to the tent flap.

Then turns around.

"How does it look?" And, at Paschal's unsure frown, "The slave's back."

Paschal lets a moment pass. Two. "Better. Healing."

Laurent nods and leaves the tent. Outside, the camp prepares for sleep with renewed energy, like men working and not merely completing tasks, a side effect of the Akielon's reckless gamble last night. He spots Aimeric, carrying packs, his face pale, a little green.

Their next stop is Ravenel. Aimeric's aristocratic bones will find respite there.

 

*

 

The Akielon follows Laurent through the most unstable patch of land in Vere, with no clue of Laurent's plans, for no other reason that he wouldn't let Laurent go alone.

If there's a logic behind his actions, it's beyond Laurent's understanding.

 

*

 

They split their duties as they make camp for the night. Laurent disappears to tend to the horses, paces away but hidden by the trees.

He needs not to see the Akielon for a while. A reprieve from hours spent plastered to his back, and how uncomplicated it had been to mount behind him and let him lead.

(a reprieve from that split second – the Akielon soldier above him, a promise of death – the sound of the sword parting the air, then parting the soldier’s flesh – Laurent, unscathed, with Damen’s hands on him, checking for injury)

The Akielon had had a choice at the beginning. He's had many choices since.

It'd be more merciful if Laurent could pretend this was the foolish fantasy of an inexperienced youth.

Laurent rests his palms on his horse's back, soothed by the vibrations of it, the rhythmic widening and shortening of the space between the ribs.

It'll be short-lived. Whatever they have, whatever they are, whatever this is.

They either die, or he lets the slave go. There's no other ending to the story.

 

*

 

The ice melts on the Akielon's skin like butter on a fire, and Laurent melts with it. He wants to see if the dimple in the Akielon's cheek is the size of his index fingertip.

The Akielon looks at Laurent looking at him. He wouldn't close the distance first, and that knowledge is almost enough for Laurent to push past his reason and do it. Laurent thinks, I could give myself this.

And then, wildly, almost feverish with the warmth of their proximity, Tell me , he thinks, tell me now. Tell me who you are, and we end this, now, in this Vaskian tent. Tell me and I'll tell you of the traitor in our troop, and I'll ask for your opinion. I'll tell you that an army from Patras will join us before my Uncle can squish us like bugs under the hooves of a cavalry ten times larger. I'll tell you what I wrote to Nikandros of Delpha, and what he answered.

More desperately, with a trap clawing at his fragmented heart, Tell me of a past that doesn't involve Kastor, or Jokaste, or Marlas. Tell me you're the son of a minor noble and that's why you walk like you're practicing balancing a crown on your head. That I'm wrong, and you're not who I know you are, and there's a chance, any chance, that at the end of this you might choose to stay. That you might choose me.

Laurent parts his lips. The Akielon's gaze slips to them, and Laurent can't do it.

Tomorrow they go to war. Tonight, they sleep.

 

*

 

Laurent walks a long path from his apartments to the great hall, a needless zigzag across the fortress. His banners - his brother's banners - hang from every window, every flagstaff. Ravenel is blue and gold.

The benches of the hall are filled with men, drunk on victory, drunker on wine.

To Damen , a boisterous, slurred chant. The clink of glasses. The sloshing sound of chugging.

Laurent picks up his water-filled glass and lifts it in the direction of the shouts. He'll drink to that.

When his Captain arrives, their eyes meet across the hall. Laurent goes to him, brings him to his spot at Laurent’s side. He witnesses the Akielon's bittersweet resistance and the slow, gradual unfolding of it, as he lets Laurent press morsels of meat to his mouth, and his lips part around them.

The men are less raucous now, or maybe Laurent is too attuned to the Akielon's sweet, repressed sounds of appreciation to notice it. Erasmus is singing to the notes of a kithara.

The Akielon calls for a request, a song Laurent doesn't know. He stares at Laurent as he does it, the words pronounced in careless Akielon.

I wonder if he dreams of surrender, on a bed of white flowers , Erasmus sings, and Laurent thinks, Yes .

He thinks of his impulsive order to the servants in his bedchamber, Make sure my Captain is brought here tonight.

The Akielon looks at him, and the distance between looking and touching dissolves like sugar in water. He pushes his chair back with the wide-eyed panic of a man at the edge of a cliff, and the longing of a sailor who's spent too long on dry land.

He flees the hall, his hands trembling, like dozed with chalis .

Don't you see , Laurent thinks as he stands up, that there's no other way down?

 

*

 

They've done a careful job of bending and coiling the truth of their positions, but there's never been outright dishonesty between them.

Until now.

Laurent rests his elbows on the battlements and the gesture itself is surreal in its nonchalance. This is Ravenel, his walls Laurent's to lean upon.

Their shoulders almost touch.

"Laurent, I am your slave," Damianos of Akielos says, a contradiction in five words, as if a slave would ever dare addressing him by his first name alone, without honorifics.  

The lie slashes through the last of Laurent's shields and, exposed, blundering, Laurent lets himself fall.

The world doesn't shake as they kiss. The fort doesn't tremble. The stars don't fall from the sky.

After the first gentle press of lips, Laurent is still standing. Still whole.

 

*

 

The Akielon perseveres in being contrary to Laurent's predictions to an extent that Laurent can't wrap his mind around. It's not saying much: on his back, with the Akielon's mouth between his legs, he can hardly wrap his mind around his own name.

It couldn't - he didn't - it shouldn't be like this.

Laurent clutches the sheets, terrified. He can't keep his eyes open, not with the Akielon above him, more bared than he's ever been.

This was supposed to be for you, Laurent would shout if he had any voice left. Why won't you take it?

 

*

 

Laurent blinks awake to the sweet light of the early morning, and to Damen.

He is careful as he extracts each limb from the bedding. After that, he races. His most urgent, persistent thought, I can't be here when he wakes.

The Akielon sleeps with a frown on his face, his arms wrapped in bedding, as though he'd scrambled for the solid warmth of a body when Laurent had left him.

Laurent is unsure of when he'd taken the blow to the head that has him thinking like this. He knows he has to leave, he's not himself here, but the self he's here has him longing, Stay with him. You've seen him wavering last night.

He goes back, his knee against the edge of the mattress, because he has to see him one last time.

He allows himself one caress, fingertips on the warm cheek, rough with the hint of hair; his defiant jaw; the gold collar, nicked by Touars' sword; the clean cut of the scar at his shoulder. The Akielon's expression softens in his slumber.

Laurent heads straight for the door this time. He leaves the bedchamber with a stack of parchment in his hands.

On every letter, a single paragraph:

Lord Touars was killed at Hellay with a thousand of the Regent's men. Damianos of Akielos lives.

 

*

 

Laurent has always been two steps behind.

The severed head had been so ruined by the heat and the journey that Laurent had wanted to crouch down next to it and inspect it in every detail. Nicaise has a beauty spot behind his left ear. Would Laurent have found it, if he'd looked?

He'd ordered Nicaise be given a proper burial before he left. Aimeric, too.

The day is beginning to darken around Laurent and his troop. They're getting closer to the sea. Closer to Delfeur, closer to Akielos.  

Has Nikandros of Delpha knelt in front of the Akielon slave yet?

The horrible sound of hooves that aren't theirs has Laurent tightening his grip on the reins. He doesn’t have to ride to Fortaine: Fortaine rides to him.

He's always been two steps behind.

 

*

 

"This is," Laurent purses his lips, "unnecessary."

"As was tearing your fresh stitches, Your Highness." Paschal puts a firm hand on his shoulder – the shoulder that hasn't had a knife in it recently - to keep him on the stretcher.

This salve has the tart smell of spoiled fruit. The Akielon's salves smelled pleasantly of cinnamon, Laurent thinks, then, pointedly, unthinks it.

The man that stood before Laurent in his tent, Laurent doesn't know him. He feels betrayal like poisoned water in his mouth, and its irrationality only heightens it.

He knew from the beginning. He didn't know at all. He -

"Did he do this?" Paschal asks, his voice like the hand massaging the balm over the new set of stitches.

He doesn't mean the knife wound. He doesn't mean Govart. He means who poked his thumb into the wound hard enough for it to gape and bleed again.

"Who? The King of Akielos? You can say his name."

"Did you know?" A confirmation, more than a question.

Laurent snorts. It pulls at the unsteady tendons in his shoulder. "Did you not?"

 

*

 

Laurent spends the night after they sign the treaty looking at the cuff. Touching the cuff. Slipping his fingertips beneath the cuff.

You knew who I was the night we made love.

The cuff distracts him from the tug in his shoulder. Small victories.

 

*

 

In the hall at Marlas, Laurent takes a leisurely stroll in between two rows of slaves.

His pick is obvious: brown skin, a head of dark curls.

The irritated clenching of the Akielon's fists is almost worth it, and further proof that the Akielon's judgment is clouded by Ravenel.

The only person Isander reminds Laurent of is Erasmus.

 

*

 

The first sword Laurent had held had been Auguste's.   

For years after his death, Laurent couldn't picture his brother losing. Then, he’d seen the Akielon with a sword in his hands.

He's seeing him now, in the empty training arena at Marlas, swinging his sword at nothing because ghosts can't be cut. Hours ago, at the raided village, he'd almost ran a sword though Laurent's neck.

"There's me," Laurent says, when the Akielon notices him. He goes to pick up a sword from the display on the wall.

The Akielon's skin is slick with sweat, his sandals caked with the dirt of the sawdust. He's been here a long time. It's only fair: they said Auguste had been fighting for hours, while Damianos had been fresh.

On cue, it's Damianos who attacks first.  

Level the field, Auguste used to say. The first part is to get them tired. Laurent has more stamina than most.

Not more than the Akielon.  

The Akielon possesses an instinctual physicality that makes him dangerous in ways Laurent can't predict. With a flare of irritation, Laurent realises that Damianos isn't taking advantage of it because he's busy enjoying himself .

When he finds himself empty-handed with his back in the dirt, it's what has him grabbing a handful of dust and throwing it in the general direction of Damianos’s complacent face.

Level the field. Maybe this will infuriate the Akielon enough to see Laurent as the opponent he is. This is a real fight.

Moves and countermoves. Laurent's shoulder throbs. He reaches for a knife, and Damen beats it out of his hand. His final movements blur one onto the next, driven by pure impulse. The ending doesn't change. On his back, with Damianos’s knee pressed into his stomach, Laurent feels anger like flames enveloping them both.

(but fire dies out when it finds nothing to latch on to.)

When they stand, Damianos picks up the knife.  

(Laurent has thought of revenge every single day for six years, and not once for the last months. He'd wonder when he'd stopped, but he knows -)

He thrusts it into Laurent's hand, closes his own hand around it.  

( - it was when he'd realised - )

He guides the tip to his stomach.  

( - Damen would let him. )

A mirror image.

He's not you. The man I wanted to kill is not you. You are - The knife tumbles to the ground with a hollow sound.

Damianos steps back.

He flees the room with his mouth parted around something he won't dare saying.  

Alone in the wrecked arena, Laurent, involuntarily, insanely, brings his fingers to his lips.  

 

*

 

Returning to his usual composure proves... challenging.

Damianos, of course, plops down on the throne next to his with a goblet in his hand and no apparent care.

Makedon is defecting. The King of Akielos motions for more wine, and announces the start of the games.

Everything Damianos does has Laurent on edge. Now, he lives in a state of constant duality. Proximity is unbearable, distance is torture. Every breath is a paradox.  

Damianos, standing and letting his chiton fall to the ground, coating his chest with oil and wrestling a youth into awestruck surrender.

Damianos, standing and exposing Laurent's brutality for his army to see.

Laurent recalls the lashes almost one by one. At the time he'd thought that was pleasure.

 

*

 

At first, Laurent isn't quite convinced griva was intended for sociable consumption and not as weapon. After the third glass, Laurent no longer holds any concerns. His entire worldview has narrowed to two things: not puking and Damianos.

Damianos remains at his side the entire night, placidly reclined with the expanse of his thighs spread and on display. Laurent has touched those thighs at some point in time. Like tree trunks coated in velvet.  

His hands itch to touch them again, and that's when Makedon announces he's retiring. The room clears before Laurent can be caught fondling the King of Akielos.

It's Damianos who helps him up. Laurent feels he has no body at all, just a floating head, but he must, because Damianos wraps one of his tree trunk arms around him.

Damianos smiles and Laurent feels it again. The duality. A paradox, every breath.

They make it to Laurent's apartments. Laurent recognizes the change in light.

"Attend me," he says. Damianos stands before him and unties each lace from its eyelet with practiced precision. It hasn't always been like this. Go slower , Laurent wants to say.  He had Isander do the same thing yesterday, because it had seemed like a cruelty not to. Laurent doesn't want to be cruel.

"I miss you," Laurent says. He's been stripped of the jacket. He's been stripped of everything else. "I miss our conversations."

He swims to the bed, or he's brought there. Wine, a mattress. It's a routine he knows.

As his lids slip shut, he can see the shadow of a figure in the room.

"Yes, Uncle," he mumbles, and lets sleep take him. His Uncle usually doesn't mind.

 

*

 

One afternoon: the length of the campaign he and Damianos have spent days and wits assembling.  

Laurent had sensed the incongruity since they'd stepped into Karthas and found the fort abandoned. A free conquest is never a good sign with his Uncle. Then, the herald, demanding Laurent come to Ios to stand trial in front of the council. Then, with the timing of an executioner, Jokaste, and a child.

It doesn't matter if it it's Damen's child (it will matter to Damen, though, and that does matter) or Kastor's.

His Uncle knew this when he gave him Nicaise's head as a spoil of war. No more innocent blood on Laurent's hands.  

Laurent would rather die.

 

*

 

Afterwards, Laurent experiences Damen's aching like his own. He keeps guard to his privacy, allows Damen to mourn in solitude. To be betrayed by someone you thought loved you is a hurt Laurent is intimately familiar with.  

He waits until evening falls before slipping into the room. Restraint becomes absurd after that.

To surrender is difficult and easy at once, like walking for days in tight boots and struggling to regain your footing once you're finally barefoot. He hugs Damen and could snap in half from it alone.

He does snap, maybe. They kiss, they fuck, they talk, and Laurent thinks of the tight boots again: how you shouldn't take them off, because you won't manage to put them back on.  

 

*

 

They have to retrieve the child. To ensure the affair will involve no bloodshed, the exchange will occur at the Kingsmeet, the only place in Akielos in which it's a crime to draw a sword.  

The only place in Akielos in which his Uncle may get close to Laurent without Damen killing him first.

Laurent finds Damen hunched over the map in their chamber, one finger tracing and retracing over the same strip of land.

"What?" he asks, standing at Damen's side. A hand behind Damen's neck, half into his curls, which landed there as casually as Damen's arm around his leg, fingers brushing his calf. The intimacy so new Laurent still has to bite his lip to keep from flushing.

Damen is still staring at the map. "Every sentry will be on alert. We won't get past the border without running into a sentry."

Laurent leans into Damen's touch. "Jokaste will tell them exactly what we want her to say."

"How?"

"You know I'm fond of disguises," Laurent smirks when Damen's eyes widen. "It's a good thing you have a type."

 

*

 

They make it past the border, and some.

 

*

 

He kneels for Damen because he won't let his Uncle be the only person he's done this for.

He goes into it like the chore it used to be, and expects the images to blur, but they don't. The leg he rests his palm on is too solid to remind him of anyone else.

So are the sounds; the hands aching to touch but struggling to sit against the wall because Laurent asked that of Damen; and when it's over and he's swallowed and Damen still wants to touch him, and kiss him and look at him like a traveller to a star.

 

*

 

As a punctuation mark into Laurent's demise, his Uncle leaves him to spend the night before the trial in a cell under the palace at Ios.

Laurent brings his knees to his chest and leans his head against the wall.

He'd always thought that, if he had to, he'd die because of Damianos of Akielos. A mantra for six years, him or me .

He's not too far gone yet not to appreciate the irony.

 

*

 

The trial is barely a parody of one, with his Uncle and Kastor on the dais and, just to the side, Uncle's newest paramour sitting on a stool.

The line of questioning his Uncle chooses is asinine . Nephew, are you ready to confess your crimes? Nephew, did you not conjure with Damianos, prince-killer and fratricide?

All Laurent does, for hours, is deny.  

He came here to die, but he struggles. He resists. He does it because he won't give his Uncle the satisfaction of an easy win.  

( Except he does it for late night murmurings of a summer palace, and the promise of an after. He does it for - )

" No ," Laurent shouts, from somewhere within the depths of him, when Damen gets dragged into the throne room and deposited like a war gift in front of the dais.

What little rationality Laurent retains reaches the obvious conclusion. This is his Uncle’s last move.

Laurent will confess anything for Damen to make it out of here alive.

 

*

 

"Bells," says Damen. His hand is on Laurent's cheek. Laurent's hand is holding pressure on his slashed open stomach.

"For the new King," Damen clarifies, like this is a lecture in Akielon culture and society, then tries to stand up again.

"Don't move," Laurent shouts, and so does Nikandros, appearing at the top of the stairs.

"What happened?" In a flash, Nikandros is kneeling down on the marble floor next to Damen.

Laurent glances at him, then at Kastor's lifeless body, then at Damen, then pointedly back at him. The scene seems self-explanatory.

"Get Paschal," Laurent orders.

"He saved me," says Damen, dreamily.

"We have physicians in Akielos," says Nikandros, but he’s already rising.

If he dies, you don't have an Akielos. If he dies -

"This isn't the time to argue with me," says Laurent. "Get Paschal, tell him Damianos has a knife wound to the stomach. Get two other --” then, with another look at Damen's shallow breathing, "-- four other men."

"I can walk," says Damen.

"When I said it wasn't the time to argue with me, I meant you too."

Nikandros goes. Laurent feels so light-headed he may as well be the one bleeding.

"Laurent." Damen puts his hand on top of the one staunching the haemorrhage, adding more blood to it. "I know weapon injuries. I'm not going to die." Their twin cuffs are streaked with blood too. "I may have to spend some time on bedrest. That's inevitable." And then, as if this is the best thing that's ever happened to him. "You'll have to attend me."

He hears the shuffling of feet in the distance, then Paschal is there, with Nikandros and the men Laurent requested.

Laurent uses his free hand to unchain Damen's cuff. The sound of the chain falling to the ground is drowned by the voices around them.

"We're going to free them all," Damen says, a firm promise in the last space of privacy the two of them are going to get in a while.

Laurent nods. It's impossible, but everything that happened today - everything that has happened since Damianos's delivery to Arles - was impossible.

The bells are still chiming. Damen's heartbeat is still drumming beneath Laurent's hand.

They'll find a way to make it possible.

Laurent isn't worried.  After all, it's the game he likes.