There was a certain point at which Damen had realized that he needed to stop judging his life based on his expectations from boyhood. He likely should have known it the moment he saw his slaves cut down before him, realizing that he’d been betrayed by his half-brother—and if not then, he should have realized it when he’d woken up in an ornamented chamber in Vere with a gold collar around his neck and gold cuffs around his wrists. But at that time, he’d still held some illusion that his life could go back to how he’d originally envisioned it; he had imagined that he could escape, make his return to Ios, be recognized as the rightful king, and all would be back as it should have been.
It hadn’t turned out that way, but Damen couldn’t find it in him to regret it. Instead of the beautiful, white-walled palace at Ios, he found himself in the new capital, the much more Veretian castle at Marlas; instead of sitting alone on a throne, married to Jokaste or perhaps some other beautiful noble lady, he found himself sitting next to another king, ruling beside him. Laurent was no less beautiful than Jokaste had been, but Damen hadn’t imagined ruling with someone equal in status to himself—and he hadn’t imagined loving that person nearly as much as he did Laurent.
They still had a long road ahead of them. Not everyone had agreed with the unification of the two kingdoms—far from it. There were still deals to be made—which was thankfully Laurent’s specialty, and they’d already spent months doing everything they could to appease every faction jockeying for attention. Open trade routes and the abolition of tariffs as their countries became one had done a lot to appease the merchants and innkeepers though nothing to mend the prejudices of the common people.
For that, Laurent had proposed festivals in Arles, Ios, and Marlas, which Laurent had done an admirable job of hiding that he found totally frivolous. The festivals had been a careful combination of all things Akielon and Veretian, with clothing and sports and foods from both countries. Akielon merchants and chefs flocked to Arles to show off their wares and Veretians to Ios to do the same. The greatest accomplishment was likely the games, with athletes traveling to all three locations to try to prove that they could be crowned thrice as the champion of their sports.
There had been brawls and outpourings of violence at all three locations, but Laurent had expected and planned for that; he’d insisted on more guard than would have usually been present for a festival, and he and Damen together had chosen the most strategic places to station them in order to quell any uprisings of violence. Perhaps even more ludicrous and been the way that Laurent had sent paid spies in Ios to listen to the tone of the people and muse aloud at taverns that perhaps Veretians weren’t so awful, if their sweetmeats were so delicious, then paid spies again in Arles to scout and plant seeds that perhaps there was some use to Akielons, because their sparse clothing was so much more practical for high summer, was it not?
Laurent had leverage on nearly every Veretian noble; Damen had no idea what he’d said to all of them to make them fall in line, but fall in line they did, although not without resentment. The kyroi had, in some ways, been easier to convince, but Nikandros and Makedon’s good impressions of Laurent had done a lot in favor of that. There would be years of cultural issues to come, and Damen and Laurent both knew that. He still heard whispers in Arles of, do Akelon men really have sex with women who are not their wives? and the amount of skin they show is simply indecent. He likewise still heard whispers in Ios of they conduct sexual congress in public and yet they are offended that we wrestle nude?
It was tiring, and it promised to be for years to come, but it was a start, and Damen had to say that things were going better than he’d expected they might. He attributed that to Laurent, who—despite finally committing to being his lover, then his husband—hadn’t changed much at all. He occasionally let Damen in on the many things that he planned and plotted, but equally often, he’d become bristly and silent and send Damen away to go over the myriad of possible situations and outcomes on his own. Damen had never stopped being amazed by the intricacies of Laurent’s mind, how many steps ahead he could see and plan for. Though Damen had always grown up and envisioned he would be ruling alone, he could no longer imagine ruling without Laurent by his side.
As for their eastern neighbors, Patras had been relatively easy to appease in the short term. After relatively complex negotiations, they’d lowered tariffs on Patran trade and given them a few other concessions, trying to reassure them that now bordering an empire twice as large wasn’t a threat to their interests. Their meeting with the Vaskian Empress hadn’t been quite so fruitful, and relations with Vask were tense, more so than they’d ever been.
Laurent’s prior negotiations with Halvik had helped them in that respect, however; though relations were icy and awaiting resolution, there hadn’t been any stirrings of war from Vask, which was certainly not ideal but better than the alternative. Halvik may have been but one clan leader, but she’d spoken of her positive relations with both kings to some of her neighbors—and public sentiment toward them, at least in the province of Ver-Vassel, was overwhelmingly positive. That could do nothing but help their cause with the Vaskian Empress, Damen hoped.
That was how Halvik found herself with them in a meeting room in Marlas. It was strange to see her there, inside a palace and in a chair instead of outdoors astride her horse or upon the dais where Damen had first encountered her. She had come with a delegation of other Vaskian clan leaders, all powerful and almost savage women who seemed to make the surrounding Akielons and Veretians quite nervous.
They were there as a formality, only, since only Halvik and one of the other clan leaders spoke Veretian and not one among them spoke Akielon. Some of Damen and Laurent’s countrymen spoke Vaskian, but like Damen, they were not learned in the rougher dialect the mountainous region of Ver-Vassel, and so Laurent had been the only one of their coalition to speak for nearly an hour. Damen knew what they were discussing only in the vaguest sense; he understood small handfuls of words, like horse and leather and occasionally daughter. He had an additional slight advantage in that Laurent was making sparse notes on a piece of parchment in front of him—thankfully in Veretian—which Damen could read over his shoulder.
Most of the rest of their coalition was looking back and forth between Laurent and the Vaskian women, hoping they’d be able to discern something, but most of their eyes looked blank and dull after the first fruitless fifteen minutes. Laurent would occasionally translate something when he needed the input of someone from their side, but he’d met the request for a more complete translation with an icy stare that had shut down any further requests. Not everyone had liked it, but no one had contested it, and Damen hoped deeply that Laurent would be willing to clarify all the agreements to everyone on their side before they were made—or else Damen would be the one to soothe over frayed tempers, a task that often fell to him unless Laurent had a purpose to being charming.
Damen could sense, though, when something changed about the negotiations; Laurent became stiff in his seat suddenly, the shift likely imperceptible to anyone else, but not to him. Laurent’s posture had been relaxed but firm throughout the whole negotiation, but this tension was something different. Damen’s suspicions were confirmed when, without another word to the Vaskians, Laurent turned to the group of Akielons and Veretians on their side.
“Leave us,” he said simply, his tone cool and commanding, sending a slight shiver down Damen’s spine. It always amazed him the way that Laurent could command an entire room without raising his voice, without any inflection whatsoever. Everyone exchanged glances, but Damen could guess their general consensus was that their presence in the negotiations was superfluous anyway.
“Please consult us about the outcome before our country agrees to anything.”
It was Vannes speaking the words smoothly, and it was obvious that the word ‘please’ was no more than a gesture toward politeness. It was clear that she expected her request to be honored, though the uncompromising expression from Laurent gave nothing away about his intentions.
Damen frowned and didn’t say anything, moving to get up as well—but Laurent’s hand clasped onto his thigh, stopping his movement before he could lift fully from his seat. He sat back down, giving Laurent a questioning look. He didn’t speak the dialect; he’d assumed Laurent wanted him gone as well, though evidently he’d been mistaken.
Laurent gave him a long, penetrating look before he turned back to Halvik once everyone else had cleared out of the room.
“In Veretian, if you would,” he said simply—and it was obvious, then, that Laurent had sent their advisors out because he wanted to be able to speak freely in a language most of them would understand. Damen shot a questioning look in Laurent’s direction, but the younger man was carefully not meeting his gaze.
Damen was used to Halvik’s thickly-accented Veretian when she began to speak, looking at him and not at Laurent.
“Your seed breeds large, strong women,” Halvik said with a sense of pride, and the one other Vaskian tribe leader who could speak Veretian was nodding emphatically. “We would have more strong women from you, King of Akielos. In exchange, you may keep the boy children.”
Damen felt his heart stop suddenly at that as he realized all the implications of what they were saying, the reason that Laurent had sent all the others out of the room. He thought back to the time he’d spent with Halvik’s clan, already over a year ago, thought of Kashel and the other women whose names he hadn’t ever learned. He couldn’t remember how many women he’d lain with that night, his body ever-willing from the hakesh he’d drank. The night seemed like it had been in another lifetime; in some ways, it had been.
“More?” he managed to choke out after a moment, fairly pleased at how even his voice sounded despite his strange internal panic. “Have there…have there been children?”
Halvik was practically beaming as she nodded.
“Two strong girls and one boy,” she told him, and it struck him as odd that she proclaimed it so casually, when the realization was crashing upon him that he had three children from just that one night he’d spent with Halvik’s clan. “Even with hakesh, that is many children for one night. Your seed is strong.”
The other Vaskian woman continued nodding along. “I have seen them. Strong babies. They will be big as horses when they are grown.”
Feeling overwhelmed, Damen looked at Laurent for help, but Laurent’s gaze remained studiously averted. Damen remembered, suddenly, the panic and excitement he’d felt at the realization that Jokaste’s child might have been his—and now that had become compounded threefold, and there was no uncertainty about it. The children were his.
He must have been silent for too long, because Laurent finally looked at him, his piercing blue eyes taking Damen in, seeing through him completely. With a short nod, Laurent turned back to Halvik and spoke, again in Veretian.
“Tell the other clan leaders that King Damianos and I must discuss the terms,” he said, his voice perfectly even, as though nothing of this surprised or troubled him at all. “We will meet again tomorrow to continue the discussion.”
Damen sat numbly as the Halvik relayed the words to the other women; he barely noticed as they all began shuffling out of the room, going back outside to where they had made their camp outside the walls of Marlas, having refused Laurent’s offer to sleep indoors.
Damen simply sat there, mind racing but seeming to land nowhere of importance, until Laurent closed the door and came to sit again, this time across from him. He looked at Damen with a steady expression.
“Would you like to discuss this here, or shall we go back to our chambers?”
He asked the words carefully, and in Akielon, something Damen had noticed Laurent begin to do recently, usually when he thought Damen was stressed. It was a simple kind of kindness from the other man, trying to avoid making him navigate a foreign tongue when he had other worries on his mind, and Damen appreciated the gesture for what it was, though he knew better than to acknowledge it, lest Laurent stop when confronted with evidence of his own generosity of spirit.
“How can you be so calm?” demanded Damen, although there was no reason he should have asked. Laurent had remained stony and calm in the face of much worse than learning of his husband’s three Vaskian children. Laurent just raised a cool eyebrow at him, his expression just on the edge of mocking.
“You knew there may be children,” Laurent said to him, in a reasoned tone. “Halvik told you that the reason she wanted you to serve at the coupling fire was because your seed would breed strong warriors. You had to have prepared yourself for the possibility.”
Stupidly, Damen somehow hadn’t. It had been a whirlwind year and a half, and the bizarre nature of their experience on the Vaskian border gave it a strange dreamlike quality, made it difficult to believe that it had even happened at all. Jokaste’s child had seemed so much more grounded in reality, even though it had been Kastor’s all along.
The slightly pitying look on Laurent’s face told him that his husband hadn’t missed the hint of his blatant stupidity. Laurent sighed.
“What would you like to do?” he asked finally, levelly.
As was often the case with Laurent, his expression gave absolutely no hint of how he felt about any of it—and suddenly Damen wondered if he shouldn’t have taken the conversation to their bedchamber, as Laurent had proposed. In their bedchamber, perhaps he could have gotten Laurent unlaced and in his white undershirt; perhaps out of his tightly-laced Veretian jacket, he’d have shown more of himself, as he sometimes did. But it seemed too late to divert them there; they would continue the discussion instead in the impersonal meeting room.
“I—” Damen opened his mouth, at a loss, then closed it again. He took a deep breath, but his mind was still swimming with all the new information. “No matter what happens, I want to meet my children. I—I want them to know me. I don’t want them to think…”
Damen trailed off, not quite certain what it was he didn’t want them to think. That they had no father? That their father didn’t want them? Was he even truly their father, if he left them to be raised by others?
Laurent nodded, as though he’d expected nothing less.
“I’m sure that can be arranged,” he assured Damen softly. “But that’s not really the question at hand, is it? The Vaskian clanswomen are proposing a trade. The only question is whether you are amenable.”
Damen looked at Laurent helplessly, wishing that his lover wasn’t so inscrutable. It seemed impossible that they were sitting there in a meeting room calmly discussing whether or not Damen would have sex with a line of Vaskian women as though they were discussing nothing more extraordinary than spices and cloth and produce.
“That’s not the only question,” Damen said slowly, after a moment, giving Laurent a meaningful look. Laurent waved his hand, as though the whole thing was somewhat trivial.
“I hope you aren’t thinking of saying no on my account,” he said, somewhat dismissively. Damen stared at Laurent, open-mouthed, almost unable to believe his utter lack of response. He blinked slowly, as if the image before his eyes would change when they opened again, though it remained the same.
“You wouldn’t be jealous?” he asked slowly, disbelievingly. Damen remembered how jealous he’d been when he’d thought Laurent might bed Isander—thought of how jealous he was, even now, at even the idea of servants undoing Laurent’s laces for him. The idea that Laurent could condone Damen having sex with practically an entire Vaskian clan without even a stirring of jealousy—that was impossible, wasn’t it? Then again, Laurent had allowed—even encouraged—Damen to do it once, although they hadn’t yet been lovers at the time.
“Are you planning to run away to join a Vaskian tribe?” Laurent asked then, absurdly. Damen stared at him.
“What? No!” he insisted immediately.
“Are you planning to kidnap a Vaskian woman, bring her to court and make her your concubine?”
“Laurent,” he said tersely. “No, of course not.”
Laurent smiled softly, as if he was enjoying how uncomfortable Damen had been made by the line of questioning. He rested his elbow delicately on the table’s edge, his chin gently on his upturned hand.
“Well then I am not jealous,” Laurent said, with the arrogant tone that had made Damen despise him in the earliest days of meeting him. “And it would solve one of our problems quite neatly.”
Damen gaped at Laurent. It had been some time since he’d felt so many steps behind Laurent’s intellectual leaps.
“How would this solve any of our problems?” demanded Damen finally. Laurent just smiled lazily, as if he had not a care in the world.
“Well, Damianos,” Laurent said slowly, using Damen’s full name deliberately, “we do have the problem of an heir. Since neither of us will be birthing any children any time soon, no matter how often you fuck me.”
Damen found himself flushing despite himself; hearing Laurent say such filthy things in Damen’s own language somehow made the whole thing even more alarming than if he’d said it in Veretian. It didn’t help that Laurent’s Veretian accent gave the Akielon words an even greater air of sensuality than they would normally have held.
They’d discussed the matter of the succession before, of course. Damen had even made an attempt to locate Jokaste and his nephew, on the assumption that the child might one day fill that role. Laurent had been the one to track down the information that she’d fled to Patras, though they had yet to determine her exact location. Considering the general distaste for Jokaste, Damen had the suspicion that their men might not be trying their hardest to track her down.
“My nephew—” he began, but Laurent held up a hand to stop him.
“Would never be accepted by the Veretian people,” he said succinctly. “A child of pure Akielon blood? We’d be seen to be favoring Akielos over Vere, and that’s not the way to foster good relations in a new country that is still full of bad blood.”
Damen blinked again.
“How is the child of a Vaskian clanswoman a better choice?” he heard himself asking, distantly. “How could Veretians accept that? They despise bastardry.”
Laurent tapped his finger against his chin slowly, his gaze pensive for a moment before he finally spoke.
“Any child of yours will be a bastard by definition—that will be unavoidable,” Laurent said finally, his tone calculating. “What that leaves us with is trying to find the best option to appease the Veretian half of the population, since the Akielon half should be content with it being your child.”
Damen stared at Laurent again, somewhat in shock. He began to wonder if the emissary from the Vaskian tribes in Ver-Vassal hadn’t been simply a compromise that they’d been able to strike in the face of difficult relations with the Vaskian Empress. He wondered if Laurent hadn’t called them here all along to find out the outcome of that night at the coupling fire, in an attempt to secure them an heir.
“Then the child should be half Veretian,” Damen said finally, numbly, as he imagined himself somehow coupling with an unknown Veretian woman. It was difficult for him to actually imagine having sex with any tightly-laced Veretian except Laurent. Even when Ancel had had his mouth on Damen’s cock, Damen had always felt that he was fucking Laurent instead.
Laurent shook his head carefully at the suggestion.
“It can’t be,” he explained gently, as though talking to a small child. “It would have to be a noblewoman, but no Veretian would accept the offspring Veretian noblewoman who would willingly birth a bastard child. It’s simply too taboo, especially for a highborn woman. Which means the child’s mother would have to be from outside our country. A Patran mother would never be accepted—they’re too close to Akielos, both culturally and in terms of blood. It would be no better than an Akielon mother.
“But Vask? Vere has shared close ties with Vask for a long time, and we share a common bloodline, though it dates back quite a long way,” Laurent said, very reasonably. “So Vask is the best of many poor options. And conveniently, you already have a son with a Vaskian mother, and the Vaskians are willing to hand him over, as well as any subsequent male children born of your seed.”
Damen stared at Laurent, still, unable to believe that he’d been thinking this over, plotting this all along. He almost wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it; his husband willingly accepting his bastard children—and then encouraging him to have more.
“So you’re telling me to go have sex with a handful of Vaskian women,” Damen breathed out dumbly. Laurent gave him a sly smile, one that made Damen suspect that Laurent was enjoying his discomfort about the whole situation.
“More than a handful, certainly,” Laurent said idly. “There were representatives from six different clans here, and they all want one of your strong girl children.”
Laurent was barely hiding the mirth in his eyes his last statement, as he jokingly took on Halvik’s awkward phrasing, switching to Veretian for just a moment. Damen felt his heart flutter in his chest, trying to remember how many women he’d bedded at Halvik’s camp, imagined how many more there would be with five more clans.
“I can’t possibly—even with hakesh—”
It was clear that it was by sheer force of will that Laurent was holding in his amused chuckles in the face of Damen’s utter disbelief.
“Multiple trips may be necessary,” he informed his husband, his tone amused. “Perhaps not too many. Your seed is strong, apparently.”
Damen sat back in his chair, running his hand over his face as he considered the whole situation, the utter absurdity of it. He thought back to before his father’s death, when Jokaste had been his lover but he’d still bedded slaves. All the female slaves had been taking contraceptives, of course, but nothing had been strange, at the time, about bedding more than one person. But the idea of bedding someone besides Laurent felt absolutely alien at that point; though Damen had always preferred women, he hadn’t once felt the lack, not once since Laurent had come into his bed.
Damen tipped his head forward again to look at Laurent, and the other man’s face had turned from amused to cool once more, no evidence of his good humor remaining upon his face. It was only because Damen knew Laurent so well that he could see the concern behind the composed expression. Laurent spoke again before Damen could.
“If this troubles you so greatly, we can try to negotiate for your son without,” he mentioned after a moment, his voice quiet, a sudden tension in his shoulders. “I will not ask you to do something against your will, or coerce you into agreeing with hopes and promises.”
Damen felt his chest tighten at the moment, sensing the fingerprints of the Regent all over Laurent’s reaction. He hated the man all over again, hated that his specter still hung so dark over them even after he was a year dead. Damen wanted to reach across the table for Laurent, to take his hand in silent support—but he knew it wouldn’t be welcome, never was where this topic was concerned. Damen sighed at the sudden somber turn the conversation had taken, wishing he’d let Laurent continue to revel in the hilarity of it all. Damen knew Laurent had had precious little of that since his brother had died.
Laurent’s argument had merits, and Damen had always known he’d have to do his duty to create an heir. He’d hoped for a love marriage, of course, but he’d always known that it wasn’t guaranteed, that he might have to marry for political gain and that doing his duty to produce an heir might have been nothing more than that—a duty. His mind simply never could have conjured this particular scenario, however.
And his time with Kashel and the Vaskian women hadn’t been unpleasant—far from it. Was it simply Laurent and their relationship that made him feel differently about it? Was it because he was King now instead of a slave who had no idea if he’d ever get his kingdom back?
But what pushed Damen over the edge was the careful reasoning of Laurent’s arguments—and the understanding of the merits of having a second son, something both he and Laurent understood acutely. Who was Damen to complain about the burden of sleeping with a dozen beautiful women? Who was he to complain about having a spouse so understanding as to not only allow it but encourage it?
Damen gave Laurent a serious look.
“If you’re certain this is a good idea, and you have no problem with it,” Damen prefaced, waiting for Laurent’s slight nod of affirmation before continuing, “I’ll do it.”
Having acquiesced to the arrangement was one thing; seeing it all written in a trade agreement in three languages was entirely another. Laurent had managed to phrase everything in a way that made it sound like a perfectly innocuous trade of goods and services, but it slightly galled Damen to know that this would remain in their country’s historical archives, that one day anyone could look it up and read between the lines and figure out the bizarre orgiastic situation to which he’d somehow consented.
It was thankfully couched between numerous clauses about trading of horses and pelts, so that one could perhaps miss it if one got bored enough reading through all the minutiae that preceded it. Unfortunately, it had to be read and ratified by their entire new council made of both Veretians and Akielons, and they all had enough attention to detail that Damen was certain that they hadn’t missed a thing about the arrangement.
Laurent had done well with what he’d been given; the Vaskian women had agreed to give him his son immediately, and so Laurent had already arranged for a wet nurse to be waiting for them at Aquitart. They’d also all agreed that his daughters would come visit him for two weeks each year, also at Aquitart, which seemed a fair enough compromise rather than asking the Vaskians to venture all the way to Marlas again.
Damen longed to travel to the Vaskian foothills alone with Laurent, as he had done before—but they had both become kings, and no one was agreeing to let them venture alone outside their country’s borders. They brought the smallest force they could justify—just Nikandros, Jord, Lazar and Pallas, plus a wagon they picked up at Aquitart in which the wet nurse would ride, and on the return trip, his son.
Damen’s heart beat in nervous excitement at that thought. He’d had some time to mull the idea over, to realize that he had a son and two daughters besides. Laurent had also gotten agreement from Halvik that they’d be able to meet the daughters on their excursion to Vask—not that the girls would remember, scarcely a few months old. Even though Damen had forced himself to become used to the idea of himself as a father, it still seemed unreal—would seem unreal, he supposed, until the moment he laid his eyes upon the children.
He wondered if they looked like him.
Their trip to Aquitart had been quick, with such a small force; their trip from Acquitart to the Vaskian foothills seemed to be taking an excessively long time, however, with the added annoyance of a wagon in tow. Damen wasn’t certain if he was angry or thankful at the delay; he hadn’t been nervous, the first night he’d lain with the Vaskian women at the coupling fire—but then, he hadn’t had the additional complication of knowing his childhood friend would be among those at the camp, perhaps watching him.
It was beyond the pale for Akielon sensibilities to ask Nikandros and Pallas to watch over him as he fucked women out in the open air—but then, they’d all gotten used to a great many things with which they’d previously imagined they’d never be comfortable.
They rode in a column, Damen and Laurent in front, Nikandros and Jord behind, and Lazar and Pallas in the back, making eyes at each other and minding the wagon. It wasn’t the best defensive formation—but then, they weren’t expecting any trouble. Not that that necessarily meant that trouble wouldn’t find them, which was why almost their entire retinue was made up of soldiers.
As they rode along at a leisurely pace, Damen thought most of the moment he’d lay eyes upon his children—and it struck him, not for the first time, how unfair it was that all their children would look like him, have his blood, and not a single one would look like Laurent. He imagined instead a beautiful, fair-haired child among the dark hair of his own, and the image made him smile. Even the idea that Laurent would have to lay with someone else to achieve that aim didn’t mar the image at all.
“You could have one too, you know,” Damen remarked slowly, into the silence—and Laurent turned to look at him with a knowing gaze.
“A child with the Vaskians?” Laurent drawled lazily in response, and Damen had to imagine that Laurent was being purposely obtuse. “I do not have the size to breed great warriors, remember?”
Damen looked at his husband and smiled, remembering with a strange sense of fondness their second night with the Vaskian women, the night Laurent had said, ‘The slave lies in no bed but mine.’ When cool, aloof Laurent had done him the kindness of bringing him ice for his side, had lain beside him on the furs in the small tent.
“But you are not malformed,” Damen reminded him with a sense of teasing, remembering Halvik’s words that night. “And you have very long eyelashes. Like a cow.”
Jord, riding behind Laurent, snorted at the words, though Damen doubted Laurent had ever filled him in on that private joke from their time with Halvik’s clan. Nikandros spoke softly, in Akielon.
“You sometimes make me think I have not learned Veretian at all, friend,” he remarked blithely. Damen and Laurent exchanged a look at the words, and even Laurent managed to laugh quietly. Nikandros had been working hard to learn Veretian, not liking to feel out of the loop, but there was no denying that what Damen had said sounded a bit like nonsense, out of context. When Damen responded, though, it was to Laurent, not to Nikandros.
“It doesn't have to be with the Vaskians,” he told Laurent, softly, conscious then of the other two riding just behind them. “It is not fair that I should have a dozen children and you should have none.”
Laurent shook his head, seemingly not even considering the possibility.
“I told you before—my line ends with me,” said Laurent, a sense of finality in his tone.
Damen looked over at him again, remembering another thing that Laurent had once said—that Auguste had been free of the ‘taint’ of his family, a taint that Damen knew Laurent saw even in himself. The fingerprints of the Regent were all over that as well, and Damen once again cursed the man. Damen knew, even if Laurent didn’t, that a thirteen-year-old boy who had just lost everything would never have been a match for the slimy, calculating Regent. The Regent had already been accomplished at wooing young boys, and he’d served himself up Laurent on a golden platter, perfectly primed to be taken advantage of. Damen knew Laurent bore no fault, even if Laurent didn’t—but there, in the company of their friends, was not the time to argue the point with the other man. He wasn’t sure if there would ever be a time for that, because Laurent would shut himself down and send Damen away long before he ever got a chance to pursue such a conversation.
Laurent gave Damen a sidelong look, as if sensing the direction his thoughts were taking. He frowned and spoke, as though to forestall any further ruminations along that line.
“And besides,” he added then, slowly, “I have no taste for women.”
Damen, of course, knew that Laurent had never been with a woman. He’d shown a vague, almost intellectual curiosity when he’d asked Damen what it was like, if it was different than being with a man, but even if he’d been curious, the Veretian taboo against bastardry would have precluded him pursuing one. That, of course, and the looming specter of the sexual experience of his boyhood.
“Not even a bit curious?” Damen prodded, gently—and this time, Laurent looked a bit pensive, shifting his hands on the reins as he stared out into the distance, thinking. After a long pause, he glanced back at Damen.
“Curious, perhaps,” he acknowledged. “But interested, not at all.” Laurent glanced back at Jord and Nikandros, right behind them and clearly still within earshot, seemingly toying with what he was willing to say in front of them. “I’m uncertain I could remain…roused, with a woman.”
The words were surprisingly delicate from Laurent, who typically spoke about sex with the filthiness of a soldier on campaign, too long deprived. It was more than likely due to the rather personal truth held within, one Damen was slightly surprised to hear Laurent willing to speak at that moment. It said a lot for the bond Laurent had managed to make, even with Nikandros, to be so candid in front of him. But something else about the words struck him.
“What will you do, while we are at the Vaskian camp?”
His words were vague, but he’d long realized that Laurent was discerning enough to pick up on inference, especially from him. Laurent gave him a wicked smile.
“Are you asking if I will hide in my tent, frightened off by exposed breasts and female genitals?” he asked, his tone saying clearly that he found the whole idea preposterous. Damen felt himself flush slightly, Laurent’s tone making him embarrassed that he’d even asked.
“You went off with Halvik, last time,” Damen pointed out, tentatively. Laurent grinned.
“I think I shall watch this time,” Laurent said haughtily, with no indication in his tone that he was discussing anything more controversial than a dull play or a musician playing the kithara. “I should like to see my buck mounting the herd.”
With a slight kick, Laurent’s horse took off ahead of them, a clear indication that he had no interest in continuing the conversation. Damen felt himself flush even harder at the images that Laurent’s words had called up; they hadn’t discussed the specifics of what would happen when they reached the Vaskian camp, but imagining Laurent’s eyes on him as he completed the promised deeds gave him a sudden air of illicit thrill.
“He really does have a filthy mouth,” Nikandros said, in halting Veretian this time. Damen could do nothing but agree with the assertion.
They arrived at the Vaskian camp just before dusk; the fire was just being lit, and women were milling about between lines of tents, some that Damen recognized and some that he didn’t. He saw all six of the clan leaders in attendance, and it was strange to imagine that, somehow, his cock may have been the impetus to bring feuding Vaskian clans together.
Damen, that time, was allowed on the dais, in deference to his now-acknowledged status as a king. The dais was at least twice the size as the one upon which he’d first met Halvik, and still it was cramped, with six clan leaders in addition to Laurent and himself. The wet nurse they’d brought along had been whisked off with some of the Vaskian women, in the company of one who spoke Veretian; the men that they’d brought had stationed themselves along the perimeter of the camp as a watch, with the Vaskians’ permission.
“First, we show you your children,” Halvik told Damen in Veretian once they were all settled on the furs. “And then we feast.”
Damen felt a distinct pounding in his chest as he saw a familiar figure making its way to the dais; Kashel looked much the same as she had when he’d seen her last, save that now she carried a small bundle in her arms. She stepped up onto the dais and, after a word with Halvik, knelt in front of Damen and angled the small bundle toward him with a smile.
Damen had no idea if the other clan leader’s words were true, if the child really was abnormally large. Boy or girl, Damen couldn’t tell, but the babe looked tinier than he’d possibly imagined, not that he had much experience with infants in order to compare. The child shared his dark skin and already had a full head of curly dark hair, just like Damen’s. Damen thought, for an absurd moment, that the child had Laurent’s eyelashes. The were long, like a cow’s, brushing against the child’s cheek as it slept.
“This is Lyakh, the first strong girl born of your seed,” Halvik said, by way of introduction. Damen looked up and met Kashel’s eyes, lifting his hand in silent askance—and though they shared almost no common language, she seemed to understand his request, because she nodded slowly. Damen gently touched the girl’s head, her curls downy-fine where his were coarse, and she was so delicate under his hand that he didn’t imagine how something so tiny could ever grow up to be a warrior like Halvik.
Another woman walked up onto the dais and stopped in front of him. Damen had never learned her name, but he remembered her vaguely, among the haze of women he’d bedded that night. She held another bundle in his arms and lowered herself to her knees in front of him, showing him another child.
The second child looked like him as well, but with slightly lighter skin. This child’s eyes were open, though the babe did not cry, simply taking in the chaos around it with a sense of wary wonder. The child’s eyes were dark, nearly black, and it had Damen’s distinctive dark curls as well.
“This is Tsvyk,” Halvik said of the second child, beaming, “The second strong girl born of your seed. Her head was so large we almost feared she could not be born. But our women are strong.”
Damen glanced over at the sleeping Lyakh, and she did seem a bit smaller than her sibling. Tsvyk’s tiny hand waved from beneath the furs in which she was wrapped, and Damen reached out, watching in muted awe as she grasped her tiny fingers around his, her grip surprisingly tight. Damen looked over at Laurent, expecting to see the same wonder reflected in his eyes, but Laurent’s gaze was strangely impassive.
“Her grip is strong,” Damen heard Halvik acknowledge, dimly in the background. “She will throw a spear before two years.”
It was another minute before a third woman came onto the dais, and Damen only vaguely remembered her, somewhere in the blur of the night he’d spent there. Damen expected it, then, when she kneeled before him. This child was asleep as well, the smallest of the three children, dark-skinned and curly-haired like the others.
“We call this one Pavliuk, though you may choose to call him what you wish,” Halvik told them, and Damen stared at the child in awe, barely able to understand that this child would be returning with them to Aquitart, then to Marlas. That this child was his son, would be his heir. He looked up at the mother, wondering how she could stand to part with her child—but nothing showed on her face except a soft smile. Damen turned to look at Laurent.
“We can keep the name,” Laurent said at the same moment that Damen said, “I think we should call him Auguste.”
It was rare to see Laurent so taken aback, rendered completely speechless. His mouth dropped open, like he couldn't quite wrap his mind around what Damen had suggested, looking back at the child and then at Damen again. Damen couldn’t get over how totally wrecked Laurent looked suddenly by the mere suggestion, abruptly wishing he’d kept his mouth shut.
“We don’t have to,” he amended after a beat, wishing he could somehow take the moment back. “If you don’t—”
“Be quiet,” Laurent said suddenly, sharply—and despite himself, Damen found himself listening to the order. Laurent looked back at the woman holding the child, saying something to her softly in Vaskian—and Damen watched, half unable to believe what he was seeing, when the woman gently handled the child over to Laurent.
Laurent took the child in his arms with no sense of awkwardness—and Damen wondered, suddenly, if Laurent had held infants before or if he was simply projecting his usual air of cool confidence. The child shifted in Laurent’s arms, letting out a soft snuffling noise as though he might wake—but after a quiet moment, he settled again, and Laurent gazed upon his face with such tenderness that Damen’s heart almost broke.
“Auguste,” Laurent said slowly, not taking his eyes off the child, seeming to be testing the name on his tongue. He was silent for a long beat as he seemed to consider it. “Yes, your name is Auguste.”
Damen beamed, wanting to pull Laurent and the child both into his arms, though he refrained only because he knew that Laurent would not want him to, not in public. Laurent would more than likely fuck him in public, if the situation warranted it—but the idea that he might simply hold Laurent in his arms in front of others was far too preposterous an idea for Laurent to even consider.
Damen smiled at that thought, looking at his husband sitting beside them. If Damen had ever questioned the arrangement they’d made with the Vaskians, he’d stopped questioning it by then; there was no way he’d ever give up this feeling, the pride and happiness he felt at seeing Laurent hold their son in his arms. It was impossible that Damen would ever be able to make up for taking Laurent’s brother away from him—but he could bring this Auguste instead, and Damen found that he could be nothing but grateful for that fact.
The feasting began in earnest after the children had been taken away to the other side of camp, away from the coupling fire. The food was much as Damen remembered, hearty meat and bread and, of course, hakesh accompanying it. Unsurprisingly, Laurent refused the drink and took only water instead.
It was odd, Damen thought, to be drinking the familiar drink with much less ignorance than he had the first time; he knew, this time around, that the purpose of the drink was to keep him lively and aroused, and the knowledge of the service he’d have to provide later in the evening rested heavily upon his consciousness, so much so that he found it difficult to enjoy the feast. Laurent, as was typical in public, provided absolutely no reassurance—but then again, Laurent likely would have thought it odd that he felt such a sense of trepidation about his duties later in the evening. Laurent would likely tease him and ask him if he remembered how to do it with a woman, would offer helpful diagrams and explanations if necessary.
Damen glanced around, seeing if he could spot any of the men they’d brought with them—and he noticed Nikandros after a minute, sitting by a smaller fire and eating at a leisurely pace, though his gaze remained focused on the periphery of the camp. Jord was stationed on the other side, doing much the same. Lazar and Pallas, at least, were far enough away to be out of sight, but it was jarring enough to know that Nikandros and Jord would be close enough to see the happenings at the coupling fire.
Their men had been allowed to keep their weapons this time as a courtesy, if only because they had a formal alliance and the understanding was that any use of force would be used to help repel outsiders in the case of danger only. That made Damen feel safer, knowing he had two of their closest friends and four of their best fighters along—but he wasn’t sure if there was anything that would make him feel truly comfortable with the whole thing.
Laurent spent most of their meal ignoring Damen and leisurely talking to the Vaskian clan leaders in words that Damen could not comprehend—and Damen tried hard not to feel slighted by his husband’s actions. They were not incongruous with the way Laurent would often act in public, after all, and despite all of Laurent’s jokes and assurances, Damen couldn’t help but wonder if he was starting to feel as strange about the situation as Damen did, if this was possibly his chosen method of deflection.
Anything to do with sex was always a study in contradictions with Laurent; his words could be filthy, like the most debauched whore, and he never flinched at any outward mentions of their bedroom life. In fact, he seemed to sometimes enjoy making Damen flush in embarrassment with the offhanded confirmations that they had absolutely no problems in that regard.
It made men slap Damen on the back and congratulate him for having so thoroughly thawed the Ice King, which was more than certainly part of Laurent’s aims—and the other part, Damen often suspected, was a bit of a cover to hide what problems they did have.
Laurent still approached sex with half shy inexperience and half overwhelming confidence, and it was difficult to predict how he would react to a given situation until they encountered it. Learning the truth about Laurent’s uncle had done much to shed light on the reasons for his odd behavior in bed but none to shed light on what Damen should do to please his lover. Any attempts to treat Laurent gently were met with scorn, unless Laurent was in a particular sort of mood; attempts to treat him roughly were just as often met with Laurent icily demanding Damen stop touching him. Laurent still reacted to Damen sucking his cock with a sense of almost youthful wonderment, as though he couldn’t quite fathom that anyone would want to give him pleasure without expectation of reciprocity, although Laurent did reciprocate often enough.
Sex in the dark, when Laurent was hazy with sleep, or when he was drunk had all been proven to be totally out of the question. They’d stumbled upon all those realizations with disastrous results, and though Laurent had never said, Damen suspected the reason was because it was too easy to forget that it was not his uncle touching him, when he was impaired or couldn’t see. Damen had given up trying to grow a beard, after only one attempt, when Laurent had gone rather pale and tense at the feeling of Damen’s stubble against his cheek. He kept himself constantly clean-shaven instead, and they never discussed it—although Laurent would take it upon himself to carefully remove Damen’s stubble, some days, as if a concession to the extra effort his reactions had caused.
While Damen was lost in his ruminations regarding Laurent, Kashel stepped up on the stage, this time without a child in her arms, and Damen realized immediately that the feast was shifting away to other kinds of entertainments. It was almost a relief to have Kashel there; though he’d been unable to communicate with her, she’d attended him the first time he’d visited the Vaskians, and he’d spent more time with her than all the rest. It was still a bit difficult to wrap his mind around the fact that she was the mother of his first daughter, but a familiar face was deeply comforting in an otherwise unsettling situation.
She said something in Vaskian which Damen did not understand; he turned toward Laurent and Halvik, surprised to see that Laurent’s apparent disinterest had abated and he was once again looking at Damen with gentle attention. He said something back to Kashel before speaking to Damen.
“She says she has had good luck to be blessed by a daughter from you, and it would please her if you would give her another.”
Laurent’s words were careful and even, giving no clue how he felt about the proposal. Damen was glad that they’d discussed the situation before, that Laurent had encouraged him, otherwise he might have worried about how his husband would react to the situation.
He thought about telling Laurent something to say to her in return, but then he remembered the disdain with which Laurent had reacted during the negotiations at the suggestion of being treated like a simple translator, and Damen decided that he preferred all his limbs to remain attached. He opted instead to smile at Kashel and hold out his hand, which she took graciously as he hauled himself to his feet.
She led him off the dais to a bed of furs, like before; he’d barely settled himself down before she was in his arms and nuzzling her face into his neck, grinding her hips against him with absolutely no sense of subtlety. Damen supposed subtlety wasn’t necessary, considering there was already a very clear agreement about the proceedings for the evening—but still, he’d grown used to Laurent’s particular brand of restrained lovemaking.
The man himself appeared beside them suddenly, and Damen couldn’t help but notice the bright head of hair in his peripheral vision. It didn’t matter that there was a beautiful woman in his lap, moving in a way that left absolutely nothing to the imagination; nothing could keep his attention away from the alluring, beautiful Laurent, even though Laurent was doing nothing quite so worthy of attention.
So Damen, despite himself, turned his gaze toward Laurent as the other man sprawled himself onto the furs with an air of nonchalance. He gave Damen a knowing grin.
“Oh, don’t mind me,” he said in the most offhand manner, flicking his wrist dismissively. “I’ll just be over here.”
As if to prove his point that he was simply minding his own business, Laurent reached for a plate of bread that lay near him, ripping off a small piece and popping it into his mouth with a small smirk.
Damen couldn’t have said anything, even if he’d wanted to, because Kashel’s fingers were unfastening the pin of his chiton, the fabric falling immediately from his shoulders. He shifted so he could pull it out from around his waist, and he discarded it off to the side, purposely throwing it in Laurent’s direction, though he didn’t check to see if he’d managed to hit the other man with it. If his husband was going to act so smug, he certainly deserved some small bit of retribution.
Being with Kashel was comforting in its familiarity; Damen remembered how her touch felt, remembered the feeling of her skin beneath his fingertips. The slight alcoholic warmth left by the hakesh didn’t hurt matters either. The only odd variation was Laurent beside them, watching them from less than a body’s length away. Damen still wasn’t certain that detracted from or enhanced the experience.
Laurent leisurely popped another scrap of bread into his mouth. Damen ignored him. He ran his hands along Kashel’s inner thighs instead, feeling her body roll into his touch. He rubbed her between her legs with a practiced motion, enjoying the novelty of how she moaned and writhed into his touch, such a perfect antithesis of Laurent, unrestrained where he was composed.
Damen was only half hard, even with the aid of the hakesh—and he felt a fleeting moment of panic at that realization, wondering if he had somehow forgotten how to do it with a woman. The simple idea of it was laughable; it hadn’t been so long ago that he’d lain with the Vaskian clanswomen the last time, and in fact, he knew it would be a skill that would be impossible for him to forget. After all, it was not so markedly different than being with a man.
It was bizarre to have to think himself through that conundrum, remembering that just a few years before he’d mostly enjoyed the company of women. But Kashel’s body seemed, in some ways, foreign after all the time spent exclusively with Laurent.
As if summoned by Damen’s troubled thoughts, Laurent spoke suddenly, his voice lazy and unconcerned. But the words were not in Veretian or even Damen’s native Akielon; they came instead in the rough Vaskian dialect with which Damen was unsettlingly unfamiliar, obviously intended for Kashel and not Damen himself. Damen had no idea what Laurent had said to her, but whatever it was, it made her stop suddenly—and Damen could do nothing but look between the two in confusion as Kashel removed herself from his lap slowly. Damen turned to Laurent with accusatory eyes.
“What did you say to her?” he demanded quietly, but rather than respond, Laurent simply gave him an absent shrug, by all appearances totally at ease as he lounged loose-limbed atop the furs.
Damen didn’t have time to continue to be concerned, however, because moments later he felt Kashel’s hand brush against his cock, the touch teasing and barely there. Her fingers swept softly along the length of him, and when Damen met her eyes, all he could detect in them was a silent mischievousness. Laurent spoke again, then, the familiar voice in an unfamiliar tongue, and Damen wished desperately that he could understand the words.
Whatever Laurent had told her must have been interesting, because Kashel laughed quietly and then she was pressing her thumb against the head of his cock, a gentle pressure against the slit as the rest of her fingers circled his length in a loose hold. Damen groaned softly in the back of his throat, feeling his body beginning to respond to her touch despite any sense of lingering awkwardness—and it struck him, all of a sudden, what Laurent must have been saying to her. It was Ancel all over again, Laurent giving precise directions on how to please him. Except this time, Laurent came with so much more knowledge, with a year’s worth of careful exploration of his body in order to find out precisely what he liked.
Damen turned to give Laurent a knowing look—and it was clear that Laurent realized that he’d been found out, his predatory smile filled with not one ounce of guilt. Still holding Damen’s gaze, Laurent said something else in Vaskian—and then Kashel was dragging her hand down Damen’s length with almost painful slowness, leaving his body unconsciously arching up against her, as if searching for more contact. Damen felt himself harden fully, though whether it was her deliberate teasing or the knowledge that she was receiving instruction from Laurent that accomplished it, Damen wasn’t sure. Likely it was some combination of both.
Damen allowed her to stroke his length with the same unhurried movements for a minute longer, his gaze still glued to Laurent’s. To the casual observer, Laurent more than likely gave off no more than an air of casual, almost clinical interest, but Damen could see the subtle signs of more. A slight flush had begun to bloom at Laurent’s neck, which Damen could just barely see over the high-laced collar of his shirt. His pupils were slightly larger than normal, likely something only Damen would notice, for all the time he’d spent staring into the other man’s eyes.
It was unmistakable—Laurent was aroused. He’d placed himself in a deliberately casual sprawl, angling his body in such a way that Damen could not tell if there was complementary evidence tenting his trousers, though if anyone could keep his cock from responding in the face of obvious arousal through sheer willpower, it would be Laurent.
But Laurent was most assuredly not unaffected by the scene before him, despite the fact that the one touching Damen was a woman. And suddenly, Damen was determined to give him a show.
He turned back to Kashel, his cock firmly at attention, then—and he reached down and wrapped his fingers around her wrist, gently but firmly halting her movements. He met her eyes, hoping to wordlessly convey his intentions—and it seemed to have worked, because she was smiling and nodding.
Damen moved forward, slowly and deliberately, using his superior size to guide Kashel to lay back against the furs. She followed the direction wordlessly, spreading her legs without any hint of embarrassment—and he reached out and touched her again. He was gratified to feel her wetness there, and he gathered some up with his fingers, rubbing the sensitive nub above her core, using her own slickness to ease his movements.
Her answering moans were indication enough that he was pleasing her—and Damen chanced a quick look in Laurent’s direction. The look on his face could be described, if Damen had to find the words, as somewhat smug. Was he proud of himself for being able to give Kashel such efficient instructions to get Damen hard? Proud of Damen, for knowing how to please her?
Shaking his head to himself at the absolute absurdity of the whole situation, Damen turned his attention back to the task at hand. Moving over her body, he pressed his lips to hers, and she kissed him back fiercely. Damen couldn’t help but compare every bit of this to Laurent. Laurent’s preferred style of lovemaking was slow and deliberate—but the way of the Vaskian tribeswomen was totally divergent from that, rough and without pretense, something that Damen remembered well from his last time with them.
Kashel’s legs wrapped around his body, pulling his hips forward in an insistent gesture. Seeing no reason to deny her, Damen gave in, reaching down to guide himself to her entrance.
It was different, and Damen had almost forgotten how different it was to be inside a woman until he was buried fully inside her. She moaned unabashedly against his mouth as he filled her, and he pulled back after a second to check her face for any sign of pain. When he saw none, he began to move—slowly at first, but when she began to grind her hips against him, it was clear even without any exchange of words that she didn’t want slow, and he began to fuck her in earnest.
Whatever uncertainties he’d had disappeared in an instant, because his body moved against hers almost instinctually as her fingers gripped his back with punishing ferocity, urging him on. There was something savage, nearly animalistic about their coupling, and he pressed her legs back to get an even deeper angle. She threw her head back with an appreciative noise, and Damen couldn’t help but do the same. He was large enough that most women in the past had protested that the position caused them pain, but Kashel seemed to experience none of it, took the whole length of him as if it was made to fit inside her.
He continued to fuck her with a ferocity he wasn’t used to being able to unleash, and it didn’t take long before he felt the pressure building up inside him, and he spilled inside of her.
Damen wasn’t sure if it was the hakesh or just the usual post-orgasm haze, but before Damen knew it, Kashel was gone and another woman appeared beside him. Her looks were similar to Kashel’s, except that her long hair flowed free where Kashel’s was braided. Damen blinked once, then again as he tried to wrap his mind around the sudden shift—and he couldn’t help but wonder where Kashel had gone as he was struck suddenly with the vague realization that he could have just put a child in her. The idea was surreal.
And then there was Laurent’s voice again, and the woman’s response, and the rough Vaskian seemed to roll over Damen like waves. Before Damen could make sense of what was going on, Laurent was beside him, though Damen’s mind hadn’t even truly processed his husband moving. Laurent’s hand pressed against his shoulder.
“Lay back,” Laurent told him with an unreadable look. “It would please her to ride you.”
Damen felt a frisson of interest run through his body, and if he examined it further, he was certain that it came more from Laurent’s words than the actual thoughts about what the woman would do. But Damen laid back—and Laurent surprised him by laying down at his side, his chest just barely pressing against Damen’s shoulder. It was a strangely intimate gesture for Laurent to be willing to engage in in the presence of others, Laurent’s fingers tangling absently into Damen’s curls.
Laurent said something else in Vaskian—and then the woman was straddling him, one hand grasping his cock with a surprising brusqueness and lowering herself onto him. The warmth of her was tantalizing, but more tantalizing was the way that Laurent, still fully clothed, lay pressed against his body as she did so. For all that Damen had thought about this, worried about it, he’d never expected Laurent to actually participate in any way. Even after Laurent’s rather blasé talk about exposed breasts and female genitals, Damen had been sure that Laurent would do nothing more than watch. He certainly hadn’t expected this, although he supposed he should have. Laurent was, if nothing else, wildly unpredictable.
The Vaskian woman moved with practiced ease that spoke of one who clearly preferred this position, her hips performing an undulating dance against him. The sensations were exquisite, but even more tantalizing was the way Laurent began brushing his fingers lightly along Damen’s flesh, an almost absent-minded gesture as he watched Damen and the woman where their bodies were joined.
Damen only vaguely heard Laurent say something that time, again in Vaskian—and the woman’s answering words were filled with soft laughter, buried just beneath a moan. Damen blinked as Laurent’s blue eyes turned back to him.
“What’s so funny?” he found himself asking, voice breathier than he’d intended. The answering smile Damen saw on Laurent’s face was one of his rarer ones; he looked almost endeared as he simply shook his head.
“Kiss me,” he said in lieu of answering—and then, without any conscious decision on Damen’s part, he and Laurent were kissing. Laurent’s kiss was slow yet demanding, as the other man’s kisses often were, plundering Damen’s mouth with deliberate focus.
Unable to help himself, Damen reached for Laurent—and he expected to find tension in Laurent’s shoulders despite the other man’s projected nonchalance, but Laurent’s muscles truly were slack and plant beneath his hands. It seemed that, inexplicably, Laurent truly was completely at ease with the situation, or he’d grown better at controlling his body than even Damen knew.
Damen spilled himself inside the woman almost embarrassingly quickly, coaxed into climax by Laurent’s skilled lips against his. There was a strange, muddled eroticism to being kissed by Laurent while simultaneously fucked by a woman.
Laurent broke the kiss and said something over his shoulder—and then the weight of the woman’s body was gone, only moments later replaced by another. Laurent glanced vaguely at the woman over his shoulder and grinned at Damen.
“Enjoying yourself?” he inquired with a teasing smirk.
“Are you?” Damen countered but his words devolved into a moan as his cock, already desperately sensitive, was buried once more in velvet heat. Laurent lounged back once more, as if trying to take in the entirety of the scene before him.
“I am,” he said finally with an air of unabashed confidence, one shiny black boot planted against the furs as he lay on his side, head propped up leisurely against one hand. This time, Damen could take in Laurent’s body in all its glory, and the visible bulge in Laurent’s trousers gave no doubt that he was telling the truth. And yet there was no eagerness, no impatience in Laurent’s obvious arousal; it was as though he was unaware of his body’s own reactions—or, more likely, that he simply didn’t let himself be bothered.
And the next woman had mounted Damen and taken his length inside herself—and between that and Laurent’s hungry gaze, Damen felt strangely on display, although that feeling didn’t dampen his arousal in the slightest. He was being treated as a thing, a vehicle to create children, a scene for Laurent’s viewing pleasure—and something about that was unexpectedly erotic where it should have been only demeaning.
Damen groaned and wrapped his hands around the woman’s hips, thrusting up into her as she ground herself down onto his cock. The appreciative moan from her was indication enough that she was enjoying herself, although Damen had quickly learned that these women were prioritizing his orgasm over their own pleasure. They all seemed skilled, practiced in drawing pleasure from a man through his cock—or perhaps that was all down to the hakesh, and his suddenly hazy perception of time, because his climax hit him in what seemed like mere moments.
Damen blinked, feeling slightly dizzy, as the woman disappeared and another appeared in her place. This woman looked slightly different than the others, slightly paler and with hair curly and medium brown. Damen wondered, dimly, if she was part Veretian. She said something, and Damen looked hazily at Laurent for translation.
“She would prefer you take her from behind,” Laurent told him, no hint of embarrassment behind the words. “You’re familiar with the position, I presume.”
The words were spoken so matter-of-factly, in Laurent’s practiced regal tone, and Damen couldn’t help but shiver at the incongruity of it all. He was familiar with the position, something Laurent knew quite well; for all that Laurent had trouble giving up control, he’d always had a certain affinity for being fucked from behind.
The woman turned on her hands and knees, spreading her legs and presenting herself to him—and she may not have been Laurent, pale skin and balls hanging heavy between her legs, but the sight was unquestionably erotic. Damen tried to sit up, then faltered slightly; apparently it had taken the hakesh some time to truly hit him, because he was feeling surprisingly affected all of a sudden. Or it could, perhaps, have been the three orgasms he’d had in quick succession already; he wondered if he’d remember later to ask Laurent if he knew how the drink worked so potently, the effects seemingly physically impossible.
Damen slid his fingers inside her experimentally—but she was already wet and open and ready for him. Grasping her hips, he slid inside her and began pumping his hips experimentally until he found a rhythm that they both seemed able to sustain. He reached around her and pulled her up, so that she was on her knees only and her body was pressed against his, his chest against her back as he continued to move inside her. He towered over her enough that he could see her breasts moving with each of his thrusts, her nipples pert and dusky brown.
And then Laurent was there, in front of her, regarding her with a detached sort of interest. More words from Laurent, then, words that Damen couldn't understand. The woman lay her head back against Damen’s shoulder, her brown curls tickling his skin, and she said one word, quiet and somewhat courteously, in Veretian.
And Damen watched with muted shock as Laurent moved forward and cupped his hand under her breast with vague fascination, feeling the weight of it in his palm. Damen’s hips stilled for a moment, forgetting to move, before the woman’s muted sound of protest reminded him of what he should be doing and he continued rocking inside her, although all of his attention was on Laurent, slowly discovering a woman’s body. He should have been jealous—always had been jealous, at the mere idea of Laurent with another man—but this was simple, exploratory, and strangely innocent despite its circumstance.
“Laurent,” Damen breathed softly, but by all appearances, Laurent was ignoring him completely. Instead, he reached up with his other hand and, as Damen watched, pinched the woman’s nipple. She groaned and he felt her body clenching around him, and Damen couldn’t help but moan as well.
“Interesting,” was all Laurent said, but then his hand was sliding down her body, down to where Damen couldn’t see any longer from his vantage point. And he wasn’t—he couldn’t possibly be—but then Damen felt the ghost of Laurent’s hands where his body was joined to the woman’s, and she was moaning loudly, rutting against him like a crazed animal, and Damen knew where Laurent must be touching her. Laurent knew, somehow, how to please a woman—but of course Laurent knew, because Laurent fucking knew everything. He’d probably read it in a book, or heard it from soldier’s gossip, or talked to the women at the brothel where he’d hidden out for hours in a dress—
And then the woman’s body was spasming around him, and Damen had no more time for thinking, his movements becoming jerky and uneven as it seemed to trigger his own climax. His vision whited out, his own body shuddering and suddenly boneless as they collapsed against the furs.
When he returned to awareness, Laurent was standing, wiping his hands on a wet cloth he’d gotten from somewhere, Laurent’s usual post-coital fastidiousness. It struck Damen, lazily, that Laurent had just touched a woman like this for a first time, expertly brought her to orgasm with the help of Damen thrusting inside her. He wondered, with a sense of desperate curiosity, what Laurent had thought of the exercise, as the woman pulled away from him and laid a gentle kiss against his cheek, a thank you. Damen tried to catch his breath as he watched Laurent hand the used cloth off to one of the Vaskian women, who took it away.
“What did you think?” Damen inquired, in somewhat hysterical disbelief over what had just happened. Laurent made a non-committal noise before he settled back down onto the furs beside Damen. Instead of answering, Laurent handed Damen a cup of water, which Damen took appreciatively. He hadn’t realized how thirsty he was until the cup of water was in his hands, which he drank greedily until it was empty.
“Do you need a break?”
Laurent’s tone was, as usual, fairly impassive, although there was a bit of concern in his expression. Damen tried, in vain, to remember how the night had gone, the last time he’d lain with the Vaskian women at the coupling fire, but that memory was fuzzy from hakesh and their whole overwhelming trip south. He tried to remember how many women he’d laid with that night, to remember at what point he’d decided to stop—but that experience had been so markedly different, when Damen had been sexually frustrated and had reveled in the chance of laying with a woman again. When he had been spending so many weeks on edge, afraid of being discovered for who he really was, afraid of the Regent, afraid for the future of Akielos and Vere.
Numbly, Damen shook his head. Laurent stared at him for a moment, as if trying to gauge the truth in the statement, before he nodded and summoned the next woman over.
The next woman he took from behind again, although Laurent made no further move to participate. He still watched with veiled interest, but whatever curiosity he’d had about women had seemingly been satisfied, and Damen didn’t know if he was glad or disappointed for that fact. After that, things started to become hazy again, one hard to differentiate from the other. Laurent told him to lie on his back once more, and Damen was grateful, his body becoming tired and sluggish, whether from the alcohol or the exertion, he wasn’t sure. Two more women rode him, then three; when the last woman mounted him, he hissed in discomfort, his flesh feeling raw and overused. He was sweaty and exhausted and felt so totally spent, and when another woman appeared, Damen couldn’t help but feel relieved when Laurent waved her away with words that Damen couldn’t understand. Damen stared at him in dim incomprehension.
“You’re finished,” Laurent told him in a tone that left no room for argument—and it was clear that the line had been drawn by Laurent, not by the Vaskians. Damen let Laurent help him to sit up, trying to shake away the fogginess in his head.
“How many was it?” he asked uncertainly, trying hard to remember but not quite being able to recall the divisions between the last few, when one woman had left and another had approached. Laurent pursed his lips.
“Nine,” he informed Damen matter-of-factly, and Damen blinked at Laurent, trying to read his expression, trying to figure out, numbly, if that was a good or bad tally. Laurent, of course, wouldn’t be sure either, not unless the Vaskians had expressed some expectation to him. “But considering I’d like to make use of that again, I’d rather they don’t break it.”
Laurent’s gaze flicked over to Damen’s still-hard cock, as if to add clarity to his statement. Damen looked at Laurent’s face, then without meaning to, at Laurent’s cock. The bulge Damen had seen straining against Laurent’s trousers remained, and it struck Damen suddenly how deeply unbalanced it was that Laurent had lay there, unfulfilled, the entire time. Laurent followed Damen’s gaze with muted interest, seeming just then to remember the state of his body. Damen swallowed thickly, somehow newly aroused by the sight, although it seemed impossible that his body had any strength left in it. Laurent gave Damen a disbelieving look.
“Unbelievable,” he breathed softly. “Perhaps you’ve had too much hakesh.”
Damen shook his head vaguely, although he was surprised himself that he had anything left in him to want to fuck Laurent. But the idea of leaving the other man unfulfilled was almost painful to him.
“It’s not the hakesh,” Damen told him seriously. “It’s you.”
Laurent looked at Damen for a long moment before his gaze turned predatory—and Damen couldn’t help but suck in a sharp breath at being pinned down by that gaze. Laurent reached out and cupped his cheek gently, a strangely tender gesture.
“How would you like me to use you, then?” Laurent mused quietly. “Your hand, your mouth, or your ass?”
Damen’s eyes fell closed and he groaned at the unabashed indecency of the question. Laurent’s reasoning was obviously sound; Damen felt that he was in no condition to fuck Laurent then, his cock sore and oversensitive and almost painful to the touch. Despite Laurent’s obvious desire for control, he wanted to fuck Damen very rarely—and part of Damen wanted to take advantage of it then, take the rare opportunity for what it was, except that his whole body felt overwrought and sensitive and he wasn’t certain he could handle that, either.
“My…mouth,” he breathed finally, eyes still closed—and he felt himself salivating already at the thought of taking Laurent into his mouth. He loved to suck Laurent’s cock, loved to make the other man come apart under him, utterly undistracted by his own pleasure. He loved to be able to do nothing but concentrate on making Laurent feel good, on listening to every soft exhalation of breath, Laurent’s reserved indications of pleasure.
Damen opened his eyes to Laurent’s hands going to the laces of his trousers—and Damen’s eyes widened in shock at the sight, the realization that Laurent was going to simply take his cock out, right there, in front of everyone. There was no shame, no hesitation whatsoever in Laurent’s movements, and it shouldn’t seem strange after what Damen had just done, in full view of most of the camp—but Damen couldn’t help but think of what he and Laurent shared as private, not a thing for anyone else’s eyes. He reached out, almost instinctively, and caught Laurent’s wrist, stilling his movements before he could untie the laces.
“No,” he said, more plea than command. “The tent. Please.”
Laurent’s eyes searched his face for a long moment before he snorted softly.
“I always forget that Akielons are so prude,” he proclaimed with a shake of his head, although he did abandon his laces, standing and reaching his hand out to help Damen up.
Damen grabbed his chiton, feeling suddenly self-conscious about his nudity—but after his third clumsy attempt to pin it back on, Laurent took the pin from him with a sigh and refastened it in his stead. Damen was unsteady on his feet as they made their way toward their tent, leaning heavily onto Laurent’s smaller frame as they shuffled along. It was so much easier, Damen mused to himself, when Laurent was the one who was impaired, because Laurent had a much harder time supporting Damen’s weight than the other way around. As such, Damen did his best to remain upright, though it was a considerable struggle.
It was with an exasperated sigh that Laurent deposited him onto the furs on the floor of the small tent, Damen practically collapsing as soon as Laurent had let go of him. When Damen had finally managed to turn around to face the other man, Laurent was sitting beside him in the small space, regarding him with a skeptical expression.
“I'm not sure you’re in any fit state to continue this,” Laurent told him with a raised eyebrow, and Damen felt a momentary flash of panic at the words, a lingering desperation to give Laurent some kind of satisfaction. Damen sat up carefully, ignoring the way the world swayed a bit as he moved too quickly.
“I’m fine,” he protested with all the composure he could muster, despite feeling used and somewhat debauched. But in spite of Damen’s best efforts, Laurent’s expression remained unconvinced, so Damen tried again. “Please, Laurent. I want to.”
Laurent’s face turned pensive as he regarded Damen, and it struck Damen not for the first time how much Laurent was in control of their relationship. Laurent may have been smaller, physically weaker than him; Damen may have been able to best Laurent with a sword, and Laurent might even prefer the traditionally “submissive” role in their lovemaking, but Laurent was the one who could—and often did—put a stop to Damen’s sexual advances, declaring himself busy or simply not in the mood. He could do it again right then, Damen realized, in a single moment. And although Laurent’s body still remained primed for it, and Damen had already found his release many times that night, Damen would end up being the one feeling deprived; he had no doubt of that.
Because Damen didn’t care how many Vaskian women he’d bedded that night—the whole of them combined couldn’t equal one single experience with Laurent.
After an almost frustratingly long silence, Laurent spoke at last.
“You want to…what?” Laurent pressed, his voice all cool control, and the challenge beneath his words was obvious. Even slightly addled, Damen could tell what Laurent wanted, an obvious taunt in the face of Damen’s ‘Akielon sensibilities.’ It felt like some sort of test, and Damen suspected what the consequences of failure would be. He took a deep breath and steeled himself.
“I want to suck you,” Damen told his lover with no sense of shame in his tone—and he waited with bated breath to see if his response would be enough—or if Laurent would demand some kind of further obeisance before he would agree. It was obvious enough that Laurent’s body, at least, was interested—but Damen wouldn’t put it above Laurent to deny the request simply to remind Damen that he could. Sex, for Laurent, could be a power play as easily as anything else.
But Damen’s answer seemed to satisfy Laurent—because he leaned back, supporting his weight on his hands in a deliberately relaxed gesture. The move made it impossible for Damen to look anywhere but Laurent’s cock, the visible bulge tenting his trousers on full display.
“Well?” Laurent asked then, tone impatient. “Attend me.”
Damen’s eyes turned immediately to the intricate lacings of Laurent’s sleeves, where he would usually begin if he was undressing the other man—but Laurent’s hands were pressed against the furs behind him, the laces completely inaccessible. For a brief moment, confusion clouded Damen’s brain, as he was unable to figure out exactly what Laurent was asking of him—until his eyes fell upon the laces of Laurent’s trousers, and it suddenly became obvious to Damen what Laurent wanted. Laurent was using “attend me” then as a code for “suck my cock.”
Damen groaned low in his throat at the realization. The act of undressing Laurent had always been something of an erotic exercise for Damen—even back when he’d been a slave, for Laurent was perfectly his type, for all that his personality had been entirely infuriating. It had become even more so when they had become equals, when Laurent had begun to ask it of him and he’d complied entirely out of a desire to disrobe the other man rather than any obligation to do so. But this gave the words an added erotic edge, because Damen knew he’d never be able to hear Laurent say the words again without instead hearing “suck my cock.”
Damen moved forward across the furs, fumbling for the lacings of Laurent’s trousers. His hands were trembling slightly as he did; never had Damen felt quite so desperate to get his hands on Laurent. Even though he’d already found his own release an absolutely implausible amount of times, his body feeling overwrought and wrung out, he felt as though he’d been teased and denied all evening because it hadn’t been Laurent’s body he’d been touching, and he hadn’t been able to see Laurent’s face lost in pleasure.
It seemed an unbearably long time until he got Laurent free of his trousers, though in reality, it had likely only been a handful of seconds. The tiniest sigh, nearly silent, escaped Laurent’s lips as he was finally released from the tight confines of his trousers—but Damen heard the sound, every one of his senses perfectly attuned to Laurent, the way he often was when they made love. It was the only way to truly ensure Laurent’s pleasure, reserved as his reactions always were.
Focusing on nothing but Laurent, Damen reached down and palmed the other man’s length—and every bit of Damen’s fatigue seemed to fall away at sound of the small hitch of Laurent’s breathing. Damen suddenly felt that he had all the energy in the world for this, as he leaned down and just breathed softly against the head of Laurent’s cock. Laurent’s body made a slight movement before it was aborted, but for all that Laurent had been able to train his body, his cock had always been stubbornly responsive, and it twitched very slightly, as if asking Damen for more.
Damen complied easily, using all of Laurent’s best tricks against him; he leaned forward and, with just the tip of his tongue, traced the head of Laurent’s cock. He speared his tongue firmly against the sensitive spot just beneath the head, the only indication that Laurent was enjoying the attentions the barely-elevated cadence of his breathing. Undeterred, Damen swirled his tongue around a second time, then pressed it against the slit, the way Laurent liked to do to him.
He took Laurent into his mouth in stages; he’d had his mouth on the other man enough times that he was sure he could easily swallow it all in one movement, but Laurent preferred a slow build, and Damen preferred watching Laurent’s composure slip, little by little. He liked to find the moment when Laurent no longer possessed enough control to repress his reactions, and that was best teased out of him gradually.
Gripping Laurent around the base of his length, Damen leaned forward and took the head into his mouth, applying soft suction; Laurent’s next exhalation was soft and satisfied, and Damen let his tongue loose again, teasing around the girth of the other man as he continued to provide suction. After a minute of that, he released Laurent once more and used his tongue to deliberately trace down the length of him—and when Damen looked up at Laurent, his face barely visible from the light of the nearby torches, the other man looked absurdly relaxed, head titled back, face flushed, eyes closed. It was as relaxed as Damen had ever seen him, still almost entirely laced up in his Veretian garb. The whole of the sight was immeasurably erotic.
As if sensing Damen’s gaze on him, Laurent’s head tipped forward—and though he remained silent, his gaze spoke volumes. Damen smiled.
“Lie back,” he said softly, although he knew it was more of a request than an order, even if it hadn’t been phrased that way. Laurent never did anything he didn’t want, not when it came to this. But after holding Damen’s gaze for a lengthy moment, Laurent obeyed, sinking back against the furs, any tension he’d previously held in his shoulders from supporting his weight dissolving.
Damen began to suck Laurent properly, then, taking in more of his length—and Laurent released a soft murmur of appreciation at the increased stimulation, though he remained otherwise silent. Damen increased the suction after, and a movement of Laurent’s hips was started, then aborted—and Damen couldn’t help but chuckle around his mouthful, about the way that Laurent was always so positively Laurent, even in this. Especially in this.
The world seemed to melt away from Damen, then; there was no part of him that was distracted by the discomfort in his own body, nor his cock still stubbornly hard from the hakesh he’d consumed. Everything he was aware of had centered down to one tiny point, and that was the hardness against his tongue, palpable proof of Laurent’s desire—and the slow but slightly hitched tempo of Laurent’s breathing, in and out.
Damen continued to work on him, and he could tell when Laurent was close to losing control. It came sooner than it usually did with Laurent, who still had trouble relinquishing control of his reactions at the best of times. The muscles in his thighs and abdomen went coiled and tense, the way they always did—and Damen wasn’t sure whether Laurent was trying to hold himself back or force himself to let go. But when Laurent finally found his release, it was with a full-bodied shudder and a tiny, almost inaudible whimper of a man too long denied his release.
Afterward, Damen fell back against the furs, watching Laurent silently as he came back to himself. Bringing Laurent pleasure was a singularly amazing experience, but it was these moments, watching him when he was so totally unguarded, that Damen had come to relish most. Laurent’s face was still flushed, all the way down to his neck, his chest rising and falling in a slightly uneven pattern as he tried to get himself back to normal.
It struck Damen, not for the first time, that he might have been the only one who had ever seen Laurent like this. He had very little concept of the specifics of what the Regent had done to Laurent—and he’d never ask Laurent to tell him, knowing Laurent preferred to keep that darkness to himself. He didn’t know if the Regent had ever taken the time to studiously give Laurent pleasure, but he suspected not—not in the face of how repressed Laurent still was, how much difficulty he had receiving pleasure and letting go.
It was possible, of course, that that was simply a facet of Laurent’s personality—or only a later development, as Laurent got older and had come to see his uncle’s interest for what it had been. But Damen liked to believe that no one else had ever had the pleasure of seeing Laurent this relaxed and unguarded; he liked to think that that was a piece of Laurent he could keep for himself. He was glad, again, that he’d insisted they come back to the tent—for even if Laurent had been willing to let Damen do this in front of all the Vaskians, Damen doubted he’d have been willing to let himself go like this afterward. In fact, when he thought about it, Damen half wondered if Laurent would have been able to find release at all, with the encroaching pressure of others’ ability to see him in a moment of what Laurent would perceive as weakness.
Laurent had gone so silent, so still, that Damen almost wondered if he was going to fall asleep that way—but finally, Laurent’s lashes fluttered and his eyes opened, and he turned to Damen with an indolent expression. He reached out and touched Damen through the fabric of his chiton, fingers tracing down his chest. It struck Damen, again, that he was still hard; he tried to remember how long the effects of the drink had lasted the previous time. Laurent’s eyes followed the same path, and he seemed equally intrigued. His expression, which had been lax and sleep-heavy a moment before, turned suddenly sharp and interested.
“I wonder,” Laurent began idly, his finger tracing around the nub of Damen’s nipple through the layer of fabric, “if you could orgasm again.”
Despite himself, Damen’s eyes fell closed and he groaned. There was something about Laurent’s voice when he got like this, curious and calculating, that had a seductive quality to it, and Damen almost imagined that it set his whole body tingling. It seemed impossible, possibly even unwise, to try to find the answer to that question, but Damen’s flesh responded to Laurent the same way it always did, his nipple standing pert at the simple touch of Laurent’s finger.
“I don’t know,” Damen answered honestly, half wondering if his body would simply rebel at some point, too stretched past its limits and overused. Laurent propped himself up on one elbow and regarded Damen silently, gaze roving over the length of him. His eyes caught Damen’s after a long minute of inspection, his expression deadly serious.
“Turn over,” Laurent said, his gaze never leaving Damen’s—and though Laurent didn’t say anything else, didn’t acknowledge it verbally, Damen understood this for what it was. It was Damen’s moment to refuse if he wanted, to say that he couldn’t handle it.
Damen turned over.
It was a rare position for Damen to be in, flat on his stomach with Laurent hovering behind him, and the oddness of it struck Damen acutely—but it wasn’t any more odd than anything else that had happened that evening, so Damen didn’t let his thoughts linger on it. Instead, he rested his head upon his crossed arms, trying to relax as he listened to the sounds of Laurent shifting around behind him, little shuffles of fabric as he moved.
Damen felt it as Laurent lifted his chiton, exposing his backside—and Damen knew, of course, what Laurent must be planning. Laurent wouldn’t be ready for another round—not yet, for his body was much slower to rouse than Damen’s was, though Laurent was several years his junior. They’d never done this, Laurent touching him there simply for the sake of it, and the idea brought him a strange sense of thrill.
His cock still pressed against the furs beneath him, as if an insistent reminder that everything about Laurent’s presence was enticing.
Laurent parted his cheeks with a gentle, almost clinical movement, as if this was something he still wasn’t quite comfortable with—and maybe it wasn’t, for this wasn’t the usual configuration they took in bed. And then after a breathless moment, Damen felt a finger pressing against his entrance, slick with oil the Vaskians must have left for them—and, breathing hard, Damen parted his legs a little further to help Laurent.
The finger circled, making him slick—and after what seemed like an eternity, it pressed inside, soft and exploratory.
This was the only thing they had done of which Laurent and Damen were both each other’s firsts; no one but Laurent had ever touched Damen there, and Damen knew that Laurent had never done this to another. It wasn’t something they did often, wasn’t necessarily either of their preference—but it was nice to think that there was something they had that was just theirs.
There was something quiet and unhurried about the way that Laurent’s finger moved inside him, so different from what Damen had done with the Vaskian women earlier in the evening, acts which had been no more than a means to an end. When Laurent had done this to him before, it had always been the same way, a means to an end, preparations for further acts. But this was a kind of lazy exploration for Laurent, like the other man was trying to take the time to memorize his body in a more subdued way than he ever had in the past.
It was pleasurable in a muted sort of way, absolutely no urgency to his slowly simmering pleasure, and Damen closed his eyes, focusing only on the sensations, at the realization that Laurent was exploring, the same way he had earlier with the woman, satisfying some kind of curiosity. The pressure retreated, then two fingers replaced it, and Damen released a soft murmur of pleasure, an attempt to reassure Laurent if he needed it. Laurent’s other hand slid up under the fabric of his chiton, where it was folded up onto his back, his palm pressing gently against the skin over his spine.
And then Laurent crooked his fingers—rather expertly for someone with very little experience with this act—but he knew Damen’s body better than anyone ever had, and it wouldn’t surprise Damen if Laurent had committed every inch of him to memory. Damen’s body shuddered involuntarily, light exploding behind his closed eyelids a Laurent’s fingers discovered the most sensitive part of him. Once Laurent seemed to have gotten his bearings, his fingers began to move inside Damen with slow and deliberate movements, taking care to angle his hand purposefully to bring Damen pleasure.
“I liked watching you,” Laurent admitted suddenly, tone ludicrously conversational, as though they were at opposite sides of the dinner table rather than on a pile of furs in a tent, Laurent’s fingers buried inside Damen’s body. Something about that made it even more erotic, how utterly unaffected Laurent seemed despite the rather compromising position. “I liked seeing how well you please a woman.”
Damen groaned against the crook of his arm, his body feeling hot and cold all at once, feverish and uncontrolled. There was something so utterly improper about Laurent’s admission that added an additional layer of eroticism to it; he wondered if Laurent had gone into the experience expecting to enjoy it—or if it had all taken Laurent very much by surprise.
“It turns out you’re quite skilled at pleasing a woman, too,” Damen breathed out, turning his head so Laurent could hear him, pleased by how level his voice sounded despite how uncontrolled he felt.
Laurent made a noncommittal noise in response.
“Not quite so compelling as pleasing you,” he demurred, and Damen sucked in a long breath, feeling the gravity of the statement. It was the kind of thing that Laurent said sometimes that took Damen totally off-guard, uncharacteristically open and honest by the other man’s standards. Moments like those were as close as Laurent ever came to saying I love you.
Damen wondered if Laurent was going to say more, if he was going to be greeted with another string of unbelievably filthy talk from Laurent’s lips—but Laurent fell silent once again, seemingly focused on the task at hand, so Damen buried his face back in the crook of his elbow and just let himself feel.
Damen still had doubts about his ability to reach climax, and Laurent’s slow movements did little to send him rushing toward that goal. Damen wasn’t sure if it was deliberate, the chance to let Damen walk away without shame if his body wasn’t capable of reaching that point again—or if Laurent had simply become so transfixed at exploring Damen’s body that he’d forgotten his original aim entirely. Damen didn’t mind either way; it was a pleasing, intimate moment, something he didn’t realize he’d craved so deeply after the almost impersonal nature of the earlier encounters. Regardless of whether there was a goal in mind, Damen was sure he’d never object to the feeling of Laurent touching him; with all of Laurent’s various peculiarities about intimacy and sex, Damen would take each and every bit of what his husband was willing to offer.
When Damen’s pleasure did finally crest, it came as a surprise; he’d gotten so relaxed in the lazy satisfaction that he somehow hadn’t sensed it coming, and the surprised moan he released when the pleasure overcame him sounded overly loud to his ears. He felt Laurent guiding him through it, his fingers continuing their deliberate motions as Damen rode out his orgasm, then slowly backing away as Damen felt himself coming down from it.
Damen felt Laurent’s fingers retreat from him, but he lay still, relishing in the comfortable simplicity of the moment. Damen let himself drift as he heard Laurent shuffling around behind him—probably, Damen imagined, finding a cloth to wipe his hand down, one Damen had to imagine he’d specifically requested from the Vaskians. His suspicions were confirmed when he felt a cool pressure against his backside, Laurent gently wiping away the excess oil there. Damen flinched involuntarily at the feeling of the cool cloth against him, then forced himself to relax again.
It seemed to take a long time before Laurent finally lay down beside Damen on the furs, so long that Damen had nearly fallen asleep. He opened his eyes, looking at his husband blearily, only to find Laurent staring back at him with gentle, probing eyes. Damen turned slightly to regard him, the uncharacteristic look on his face, one Damen would have had a difficult time describing if asked. He gave his husband a questioning look.
“We have a baby,” Laurent intoned quietly, in a slightly awed voice—and Damen had almost forgotten, in the light of the open sexuality of the whole night, what it had all been about. The utter wonder in Laurent’s voice was almost breathtaking; Damen found himself smiling without really thinking about it. He reached out and touched Laurent’s cheek.
“We have a baby,” he agreed with a soft smile, one that Laurent returned after a long pause, tucking his face against Damen’s neck.
When Damen woke the next morning, Laurent was gone. It wasn’t even surprising, really; Laurent had never been an easy sleeper, and his inability to relax often extended even into sleep. More often than not, Laurent woke before Damen did—and sometimes, he’d lay in bed until Damen woke, or find a creative way to wake Damen. But often enough, he’d get up and begin the business of the day and let Damen sleep on. Damen was more than used to waking up to an empty bed.
The events of the previous night came back to Damen as he searched through the small tent until he found his chiton, which Laurent had carefully folded and set off in the corner. He got dressed and stepped out of the tent to see that it wasn’t long past dawn, and the sun was still just beginning to peek over the horizon. Many of the Vaskian women were already up and about, but Damen saw no sign of any of their small party of Veretians and Akielons.
Damen began picking his way between tents, eyes darting around in search of a familiar head of golden hair, though all he could see was a sea of dark. Thankfully, the Vaskians all seemed to understand what he was searching for, because one woman stopped him and pointed him in the right direction, and a few more along the way continued to keep him on track. Eventually, he spotted Laurent through the row of tents, and he immediately made his way in that direction.
Laurent was sitting on a large rock in front of one of the now-cold fire pits, a tiny bundle of blankets in his arms. Damen stopped some distance away, just watching Laurent hold the baby—and he felt, again, that strange sense that Laurent was bizarrely comfortable with the child, like it was all somehow coming naturally to him. Damen, for his part, didn’t feel that sense at all; he was still having a difficult time wrapping his mind around the fact that they even had a child, let alone the fact that he may very well have created more the previous night. But Laurent seemed immediately taken by the fact that he was now a father, even though the child had no biological connection with him.
It was sweet, in a way, to see this unexpected side of Laurent. Laurent was a lot of things he didn’t show openly—kind and gentle and vulnerable—but nurturing was never a word he’d have thought to ascribe to the other man, not until he’d seen him with their child. Damen couldn’t help but look forward to how things would be when they got back to Marlas, eager to see more of this previously unknown side of the man he loved.
Damen finally made his way over to the other man, sitting on the floor beside him, close enough then that he could finally see Auguste’s tiny sleeping face bundled inside the blanket. The babe looked serene in sleep, and very much like Damen; there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the child was Damen’s, and Damen spared another passing thought for what their subjects would think of this, of the tangible proof of the deeds Damen had done to create this child. Damen shook that thought away as Laurent looked up at him, his face uncharacteristically soft.
“You look so natural with him,” Damen told Laurent, unable to keep the raw honesty out of his voice. Damen expected his husband to take the words as the compliment they’d been intended to be, but of course, Laurent never did anything the expected way.
“I have no idea how to be a father,” Laurent said instead, speaking in hushed tones to try to keep from waking the sleeping baby. He spoke in Akielon, Damen noticed, the one language he was fairly well assured that almost no one in the camp could understand, save those they’d brought with them. Damen gave Laurent a reassuring look.
“We’ll figure it out,” he told Laurent seriously, but Laurent just shook his head. He was silent for a long minute, seeming uncharacteristically lost for words, before he spoke at last.
“My father,” Laurent began slowly, tentatively, “wasn’t a bad man, but…he wasn’t ever much of a father to me. He was much more interested in Auguste, and he made it very clear to me that I was nothing more than his second son. He…didn’t have much use for me. And when he died, all I had was my uncle…”
Laurent trailed off, and Damen felt his heart clench in his chest at Laurent’s words. He was still unused to this kind of openness from Laurent, who he knew trusted him more than anyone—although that wasn’t saying much, since he trusted most people not at all. What he knew about Laurent’s father and brother he’d gotten mostly from inference, and from passing references to them—and what he knew of the Regent, in the years before he’d met Laurent…well, most of that bitter truth had come from the Regent’s mouth rather than from Laurent’s. Damen knew the broad strokes, and his mind found gruesome ways to fill in all the details he’d never ask Laurent to share.
“You’re not like him,” Damen told Laurent without hesitation, and Laurent just frowned in response.
“Aren’t I?” he asked bitterly, and baby Auguste shifted in Laurent’s arms, making a soft snuffling noise. Laurent looked down at the baby in his arms, seeming stricken, until Auguste went silent and still again. He glanced up at Damen with a pained look, lowering his voice once more. “I had to become like him to survive him.”
Damen stared at Laurent for a long moment, trying to figure out the right thing to say to calm his doubts.
He started to speak, but Laurent cut him off again, shaking his head.
“I don’t mean…fucking children,” Laurent said haltingly, the words vulgar and full of disgust, like he couldn’t quite force them out of his throat. “Of course I would never do that. But I’m not…warm or affectionate, not the way a parent should be.”
It hurt Damen to hear such doubt, such self-deprecation in Laurent’s voice. Laurent always seemed perfectly self-assured, confident and at peace with the man that he was. Damen knew, of course, that some of that was a front, a mask he put up in order to hide any perceived weakness from others—but he hadn’t realized that Laurent was plagued quite this level of self-recrimination.
Damen scooted across the ground, not caring that he was getting his chiton dirty, moving closer to Laurent. He reached out and laid a gentle hand on Laurent’s arm, knowing that Laurent was just as likely to throw off a more overt show of affection than he was to accept it.
“You are,” Damen told him, and Laurent gave him a long-suffering look, like he was disgusted with his husband for lying to him so openly. “You are with people who deserve it.”
Damen knew the words were true even if Laurent did not; Laurent was perhaps not full of romantic words or sweeping gestures, but Damen hadn’t ever doubted that Laurent cared for him, not since the moment they’d decided to unify their kingdoms and their lives. And Damen had seen Laurent be kind to others who’d earned his trust—had seen him even be open and comfortable around them on occasion. Jord most certainly had earned Laurent’s trust and affection—and even Nikandros had been allowed to see more of that side of Laurent in recent memory. Damen knew the truth about Laurent, that he wasn’t quite so impenetrable as he thought.
Damen’s words didn’t seem to reassure Laurent, though; his expression remained pained when he met Damen’s eyes again.
“What if he doesn’t know?” Laurent asked desperately, and Damen heard the full question even if Laurent hadn’t managed to voice it. What if he doesn’t know that I love him? was what Laurent had aimed to ask, but Damen wasn’t certain that love was even a word in Laurent’s vocabulary.
Unable to help himself any longer, Damen sat up on his knees, leaning in to press a soft kiss to Laurent’s lips, carefully avoiding jostling the still-slumbering infant in Laurent’s arms. It was strange to kiss Laurent in relative public, even in such a chaste way; for all that Laurent had been willing to have Damen suck his cock in front of others the previous night, Damen was certain he could count on one hand the times others had seen them so much as share a kiss. That spoke to Laurent’s fear, Damen supposed—that he wasn’t open enough with his affections, that perhaps their child wouldn’t understand his father’s reticence wasn’t a rejection.
Damen pulled back from the kiss and gave Laurent what he hoped was a reassuring look.
“We’ll make sure he knows,” Damen told Laurent with all the confidence he could muster, which was quite a lot; he already knew how much Laurent loved their son, and Laurent had known the boy for less than a day. Laurent looked, by a charitable description, highly skeptical of that assessment, and Damen just sighed, wondering if Laurent had slept at all the previous night—or if he’d kept himself up all night worrying about this. It was one of those things that was near-impossible to tell with Laurent; he functioned on little or no sleep with more mental acuity than most men who slept peacefully through every night. And Damen knew Laurent wouldn’t thank him for asking about it, so he kept his mouth shut.
After a long silence, Laurent finally spoke again.
“I should hope so,” he told Damen earnestly. “It wouldn’t do for him to turn out like me.”
It was another bout of unabashed honesty from Laurent, the exact sort of self-reflective truthfulness that was so rare from the other man’s lips. Something about the whole conversation was otherworldly; in the hazy light of dawn, it was almost difficult to believe that anything about their encounter was real, for once the sun was up and their men were back around them, Damen was certain he’d be greeted once more by the confident and self-assured King that Laurent usually portrayed to the world. He was as glad that Laurent was comfortable being open with him as he was upset that Laurent thought so little of himself. Damen leaned forward and brushed his hand through the dark curls of the sleeping babe in Laurent’s arms.
“I don’t know,” he mused quietly. “I don’t think it would be so bad if he turned out intimidating and cunning and brilliant.”
“You’re far too idealistic,” he remarked, although there was a little smile playing at the corners of Laurent’s mouth even as he said it. “And unforgivably biased.”
Damen smiled back, seeing whatever darkness had overtaken Laurent beginning to lift, ever so slightly.
“I simply don’t like to hear people speaking badly of my husband,” he told Laurent with a pointed look, and Laurent simply shook his head, his expression slightly disbelieving. “The two of us together will make good parents, Laurent.”
Laurent pursed his lips.
“Maybe,” he acquiesced softly, sounding slightly dubious—although his tone wasn’t nearly as bleak as it had been a few minutes before, which Damen took as some kind of victory. That was the way it had to be with Laurent, Damen had learned long ago; one had to be happy with tiny indications of sentiment, for Laurent was rarely one for grand gestures of emotion. Feeling a sudden rush of affection for his husband, Damen leaned in and pressed another brief kiss to Laurent’s mouth.
“Come on,” he said, standing up and placing a hand on Laurent’s arm to help him do the same. “Let’s take our son and go home.”
And Damen was sure that he could be confident enough for the both of them, because he didn’t miss the rush of warmth in Laurent’s eyes when he had said the words ‘our son.’