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For years he had thought that there was nothing he would not do for Damianos.

Some years ago, he had sworn to something similar, to being his friend always and loyal to him forever. When he had returned from his service at the Kingsmeet, flushed still with pride but a little steadier with it, their friendship, left hanging in his two years of service where Damianos could not follow, had been renewed with all its fervour. Then had come the war, and Marlas, and not long afterwards Nikandros had found himself swearing oaths of loyalty and obedience to Theomedes and to Damianos as heir. To the former, he had done his duty, but it was the good of the latter he had considered more.

But he had sworn to keep to the laws, to defend the border, to keep the king’s peace and follow his orders. It had never been about this. King Theomedes, whose demands upon him had not been excessive, and to whom Damianos had always been the fulfilment of all the expectations anyone could have of a son and heir, could never have contemplated that Nikandros would find himself subject to the orders of a Veretian, to kneel before him so far from home, with Damianos by his side.

“Well?” said Laurent, Prince of Vere. “Will you try to provide some entertainment or must I call for another to fulfil your task? I might warn you: you may not enjoy it.”

What was there to enjoy in Vere? In Delpha, he had thought he had seen Veretian governance or the remains of it. He had not thought of it like this: the Prince’s words, that sweet arched tone, each word like a blow. As though there could be anything to enjoy, though what was being asked of Nikandros was nothing compared to the blow against Damianos. Only this: to betray his king, to take the man he owed all loyalty to as he might take a slave, and all of it under that cool gaze.

He thought of Damen bending down to kiss the Prince’s boots – Damianos, whose greeting to the king was but an incline of the head, but a case of rising to his feet. They were fine-looking boots, well-polished. Similar ones, though simpler, had been worn in Delpha when even thicker socks could not make sandals suffice. Though they knew him not, to see him humbled had won the approbation of the crowd, the appeasement, though only for a minute, of this spoiled Prince with his cruel whims.

Nikandros might have knelt for Damianos so, if custom had forced it of him. He kept that in mind as he too, having moved forward, bent his head down to one boot and then the other. He was humbling himself as a slave might to spare Damianos. Many a sacrifice would be worth that.

He dragged the words up too, much like Damen had spoken, his voice pitched to carry. That was not difficult; he felt as though they had seared themselves into his brain.

But this could not be reduced to fighting, to spectacle. “I serve only for your pleasure, Your Highness. What I do is done by your order. But let it be fought out between us in swordplay or wrestling and let the victor then take the vanquished, as suits the custom of the court.” His lips barely avoided brushing the leather as he spoke.

Said to Damianos, it might even have been true. He could never have had cause to say it to Damianos.

“My pleasure,” repeated the Prince. Nikandros was reminded of the phrase that had accompanied so much that had been done to them in the preceding days: the Prince’s orders. “But my pleasure is to watch you fuck him.” He spoke with the same matter-of-fact tone as his underlings.

He said nothing that he had not already said, but still the words shot through Nikandros like lightning. He could not bring himself to rise, but felt swell within him a misdirected rage. He had debased himself so and it had all been for nothing.

As though he could not bear a moment to pass without inflicting some humiliation or another, the Prince tilted up his foot, so that the tip of his shoe brushed against Nikandros’ jaw, forcing his head up with the push. Despite his intentions, there was no flush of desire upon the Prince’s face, nor any other visible sign of arousal in his form. He was not as tall as Nikandros, but from this angle, it was hard to keep that in mind. It was impossible not to think of how much power Kastor had granted the Prince.

It was hard to believe that matters could have gone so far so quickly. One night a few weeks before, he had taken Damen by the arm and taking him into the orchards, talked of his brother and of ambition. He had thought the orchards a place of safety; he had kept his voice low. Damianos, appalled, had turned away from him, but his voice too ought not have carried far. Still, it was hard to rid himself of the thought that this was why he was here. Had he not tried to warn Damen, had he instead tried to guard against Kastor’s attempts some other way, Nikandros might have…

He might have been dead these past two weeks, slain like Damianos’ guard and his slaves. He might have been the luckier for it, not pushed to his knees and lower, chained in Vere and forced to watch Damianos humiliated. Forced to take part in it.

The pressure beneath his chin grew more insistent. Nikandros scrambled to his feet, all too aware of how little grace he did it with. In the provincial court at Delpha, he might have seen some dismissed official scramble so to his feet, glad to get away with a mere dismissal.

In the tone of one proffering a gift, the Prince said, “I’ve had him prepared for you.”

He could not turn to Damen, who, still gagged, could not speak and yet must read his face.

Though they had placed more clothes on him for the fight, still the servants had been overzealous with preparing him. Damianos must have fought, and so the oil had spilled where it should not, had soaked through the fabric. The fight and Damen’s struggle must have held his attention regardless, but over and over Nikandros had found his gaze caught.

He could hardly imagine it. His understanding of the preparations were vague on the whole, for to watch a slave being prepared was beneath his station; to imagine Damianos bending over and spreading while another made him loose and ready was absurd.

It was almost a kindness, that he would not have to be responsible for that. If there was any kindness to be found in the Prince at all.

“Can you couple adequately? It would appear your friend cannot,” said the Prince.

He was turning to Damianos; he saw him bristle. It was ridiculous that it should move him so, but Nikandros found himself heartened all the same. He was not broken by it, then, if still he could find insult in his sexual prowess being challenged. In a half-surge of memory, he half expected to hear Damen insist that he had spent seven hours with the gladiator from Isthima, or that Kyra from the village – whichever one of the village girls she had been, or all of them perhaps – had been loud enough in her pleasure to bring her sister running.

“Very well,” said the Prince. “Let it not be said that I do not concern myself with my slaves’ well-being. I will provide instruction.”

Under other circumstances, it might have seemed amusing. Nikandros had never taken instruction in the art of lovemaking and was not of a mind to start now. Especially not from a Princeling they called frigid, when by the time Nikandros had been his age, he had already sampled a vast array of slaves.

He took a step towards Damianos, wound a hand around to his hip. He had thought it might steady him, though it was not reasonable to expect that despite all this, Damen could still give him strength. He himself would need it, and against Nikandros too. He shut his eyes and took in a sharp breath. So it really was to happen.

He might have drawn a slave towards him like that, let them feel his cock against them, for sometimes the newer ones were, despite all their training, hesitant. He could not hold the promise of it against Damianos like that, not when the Prince’s demands had made what was to happen sink in enough, not when for Damianos this was a cruel punishment and not the purpose of his life.

Ungainly though it was, it was Nikandros who drew close to him. And stood there. He could not lay a hand on Damianos and manoeuvre him into a fuckable position, nor was it credible that Damianos would spread to be fucked.

It was the Prince who got involved then, though Nikandros could hardly consider it helping. He said, in the tone he might have used to someone very stupid indeed, “Spread his legs.” It had not been so long at all, but still Nikandros found that without thinking, his hand had slid around Damen’s thigh, was tugging it aside. “Wider.” It was only that he had spent years readily obedient to the commands of his betters: his commanders at the Kingsmeet, in the war, Theomedes. Damianos.

His hand reached down to Damen’s entrance, slick and wet, and pushed in one finger and then another when the first went in easily. This part at least was the same as opening up a slave, for whoever had forced this indignity upon Damianos had known their task well. Through the gag, Damen made a noise that sounded like shock, and startled hard.

He was still chained; it was not enough to pull himself fully away. The tips of Nikandros’ fingers remained within him.

“No,” said the Prince. “He’s been prepared enough.”

Pushing them back in, Nikandros spread his fingers inside Damianos, felt him rock back a little against them. It might stretch a little; he would feel it. Had he really been a slave, it would have been his First Night, though no one in Akielos fucked with an audience.

“I thought at least this would not be beyond your abilities,” said the Prince. His voice was very level. “Do you only know how to spread and beg for it?”

The thought was repellent. He could not separate out in his mind the sighs from the slaves, their cries, the shade of their hair as they pressed their faces against the pillows. He knew only that he could never be like them. Nikandros took hold of Damen’s hips and thrust in, burying himself to the hilt.

All in an instant, he regretted it. The noise Damen made was not so much a keen, muffled as it was by the gag, but Nikandros felt it down to his bones. He thought to himself that in all his life to come, he would be unable to rid himself of the memory of that sound, of the feeling of Damen taking his cock.

Damianos would kill him for it, when he got free. For taking part in degrading him like this, for using him as a slave ought to be used, there could only be one punishment.

It had never felt like this. Nikandros had taken many slaves in his time, had fumbled with a few soldiers. He had never felt this aware of his own body, of how it fit against his partner’s, of the tight heat around his cock. He dropped his forehead down against Damen’s shoulder and took a sharp breath.

They had perfumed him. The smell of his body was not what it had been all those times when Nikandros had embraced him, doused with sweat after wrestling or greeting him in a columned hall after a long absence. Nikandros closed his eyes. Quintessentially Veretian, some blend of scents he couldn’t begin to identify, which even the slaves, whose purpose was to delight the senses in all ways, would not have had sprayed or spread against their skin. Of all things in their situation, it was ridiculous that this should move him at all.

“It is usual to thrust a little,” came the Prince’s voice. Nikandros only squeezed his eyes shut further, as though by doing so he could close his ears too. The Prince made him half-wish he had never learned Veretian, except that to be here, like this, unable to understand what was happening, was an even worse prospect.

In this, the Prince might have the right of it. If Nikandros could hurry it along, bring himself quickly to completion, it would be over sooner. The Prince would leave; they would be allowed to stop. He and Damen would be left alone, which now could not be a prospect to be relished but would at least bring an end to this ordeal.

To thrust slowly as though making love, to worship him with his body was what Damen deserved. But it was too much; he could not press kisses against his shoulder as he might to a beloved, not when all the time Nikandros was acutely aware that the Prince was watching, was commanding them. He himself – Damianos – had been laid bare enough without greater intimacies being ceded.

He gave a few short hard thrusts without great commitment. Damen’s body, used to hard wrestling moves, took the roll of his hips easily. He moved along with it, but without much initiative of his own.

The soldiers Damianos took to bed, the gladiator from Isthima, had praised Damen’s stamina and his skill. He was denying the proof of it to the Prince, who would not even have heard the tales, and to Nikandros, who had. That he sought to hold on to what little of his dignity he could was not surprising, but still it rankled at Nikandros. He himself did not want to be doing this. Though the task appointed him was less degrading, still it was shameful. It was not helpful of Damianos to make him feel acutely that he was using him as he might a slave, that they were not here as friends who might take pleasure together in the absence of other desirable bed-partners.

Moving his head up, he brushed against the collar they had placed around Damen’s neck. It was not like the ones he had seen all his life, small and dainty around thin necks. Damen’s neck was thicker, leading down to broad and muscled shoulders, and the collar itself was hefty and broad. It must have been pressing against Damen’s neck much like the one around his own did.

He was more keenly aware of it than even of the manacles around his wrists. Watching Damen fight, with he himself pushed down by the Prince’s feet, it had been that he had been most conscious of for himself. For brief moments, the Prince’s hand had rested against his neck, the fingers under his collar, or against his hair, and had drawn his attention from Damen’s struggle in the ring. It had been that, more even than the weight of it, or the flash of gold as he moved, which made his stomach lurch, that had made him feel chained. Claimed.

But the gold they had used looked much the same. If he concentrated on that, and not on the skin around it, and what it was being used to signify here, it was a comforting sight. Nikandros might have been back in Delpha, where the slaves were cruder than those Damen owed in Ios. He might have been back in his rooms, with a slave he had chosen of his own accord, doing to him what he himself chose, with nobody looking on. The slave would spread his legs for him just as Damianos was, his body sweetly yielding, and his neck would be tilted up with that same flash of gold around it.

His cock twitched.

Damianos jerked, but as this meant him clenching tighter around Nikandros’ cock, the movement did not help at all. A slave might welcome being fucked like that, taking his cock deeper, eager to please his master. Nikandros fucked into him as he might into a slave, his eyes still on that flash of gold.

The sound of the Prince’s voice was like a slap of cold water. “And this after you protested so much? My, my.”

His cheeks burned. He clenched his jaw and did not look up at the Prince, only winding his hand around Damen’s body to his cock. If he could get him to come, perhaps the Prince would be satisfied. It was Damen it was all about. Nikandros did not think it was only his own allegiance clouding his mind: the Prince kept his eyes on him, and his tongue sharp in a way Nikandros had not noted directed at him. The Prince had wanted him fucked and shamed, and would not accept substitution.

He grasped Damen’s cock, his thumb just over the head of it. Though his grip was not tight, it seemed to Nikandros that the act had steadied him. This at last was something that could with honour be done to his king.

Under other circumstances, it might have been a service. To wash and clothe was an act beneath even squires, let alone a man of Nikandros’ rank, but when the touch turned sensual, when it was about the exchange of pleasure, mutual though it could not be equal, to brush his hands against Damianos’ skin could not remain in the sole remit of slaves.

He froze as the Prince’s hand came down over his own. His grip was tight, and warm, and though it did not cover his hand so fully as to render him unable to move his fingers to stroke, Nikandros felt like he had been bolted in place. What little movement he could have made would have been only very light strokes, teasing incapable of leading to anything more, and under the circumstances that would only have been cruelty. Damen was still gagged; to tear gasps from his mouth could only hurt him. It hurt something in Nikandros too to think of the Prince’s eyes on Damen’s face, chasing each sliver of reaction to the twitch of Nikandros’ fingers.

“He’ll come on your cock and beg for it,” said the Prince. Then, in a tone stripped of any admiration, only the assessment one might make of a horse before a race, “I think you’re capable of it.”

He squeezed Nikandros’ hand once and pulled away as Nikandros let his own move obediently across to Damen’s hip, across Damen’s stomach where he startled to be touched. He had used that when trying to best him at wrestling; years ago, it had even worked. It seemed a world away now.

“Did you think I would find feigned reluctance appealing?” said the Prince. There was a line across his forehead, but otherwise he seemed quite unmoved. “You can’t claim inexperience. It’s clearly not the first time you’ve done this.”

He was wrong. Taking Damianos like this was nothing like tupping slaves had been, nothing like the stumbling handjobs he had exchanged with his fellows at the Kingsmeet.

“Your friend,” he drew out the word with a hint of irony that made Nikandros’ stomach lurch, “is clearly not new to taking cock.”

He might have said something else then, but Nikandros could scarcely hear. He heard only those words as though echoed, and for all that he had held back before, could not stop the outrage that choked him. “He would never!” he said, and felt the words ring hollow without the truth of Damen’s name.

The Prince’s mouth twisted. His voice turned sweet. “He probably spread for his whole squadron as a soldier in Akielos. How many men do you think have taken him as you are? You might have to try harder than that to be memorable.” He lifted a hand to brush Damen’s hair out of his face, smiled faintly at whatever he saw in his face. “Such a good boy. You take it so well it’s hardly credible nobody’s used you before.”

Damen jerked forward as though to do him violence. Still chained, still gagged, it was of little effect. The Prince did not even deign to step back.

They could have taken him. He hardly seemed a formidable warrior, and not even Prince Auguste had been good enough to beat Damianos. But to attack him, however much he deserved it, would spell their deaths. Akielos would be left to Kastor; Damianos would be killed far from home as a rebellious slave, brutalised, likely thrown to the carrion birds. The triumph would be but fleeting, and very limited.

But because it was not possible, he let himself imagine that their positions were reversed. The Prince’s rank ought to have made it impossible, for however much they plotted in Vere, they would never send off one of their own to those they deemed barbarians. Nikandros remembered still those grim faced figures in Delpha who, clinging still to Vere and its ideals, had beseeched him in vain against the taking of the slave tribute. Besides, the Prince had no brother to betray him now. But still Nikandros thought of him kneeling at Marlas, mere plethrons from where his brother had died. Though he lacked proper training, his looks were such that would grant him the honour of being given over to Damen’s use when Damianos came down to inspect the troops.

Civilised norms would not allow him to be mastered in public as he should be, before the eyes of the Veretian envoys who would pretend not to recognise him. But Nikandros would think of it, all the same. For all his rank, the Prince would break. Veretians were duplicitous creatures because they could not stand fast; they could be beaten into place.

It was pleasant to think of fucking into that hated body instead of into Damianos, pleasanter still to envisage that striking face screwed up as he was taken. Nikandros’ fingers had dug into Damen’s hips. Without intending it, his thrusts turned rougher. It was the Prince who deserved to feel the humiliation he was now heaping upon Damen.

The Prince reached out and, placing a hand beneath Damen’s jaw, tilted his head up. Something squeezed in Nikandros’ chest at the thought of the Prince watching him, of taking for his own all the reactions that belonged to Nikandros alone. As a slave who served with every breath, every movement of his body for his master’s sake, each ripple of reaction was for him. He dreaded seeing it, for even as Damen’s body reacted to his assault, it did not seem real. To see his brow furrowed, the clenching of his jaw, the eyes squeezed shut, would be to seal the truth of it forever within him, like the cut of an opponent’s sword sealed the memory of a misstep. Despite this – or even because of it, for nothing about Vere felt real, and the sense of unreality choked him – he yearned to look into Damen’s face, and envied the Prince not only his freedom.

He must have prised open Damen’s mouth, as might be done to a horse or a slave at the market. Positioned as he was, Nikandros had only the impression of the Prince’s fingers. His next thrust was deeper, hoping that it might push Damen to clench his jaw, to bite down on the Prince’s fingers.

It was with surprising gentleness that the Prince removed the gag and flung it aside.

Without it, Damen’s breaths came heavy. It was that Nikandros focused on, even as the thrusts brought with them the slap of their bodies, brought with them a grunt and then another from Damianos.

“You shouldn’t find it too difficult,” said the Prince, and gave Damen’s cheek a patronising pat. His eyes drifted briefly past Damen’s shoulder and met Nikandros’ gaze, before his attention returned to Damianos. “You’ve been depriving your friend. He’s clearly been dreaming of pushing you down on your knees and putting his cock in you since he first knew what it was for. You’ll have many nights of service before you can satisfy him.”

It wasn’t true. It wasn’t at all true. Nikandros had found his gaze lingering at times on Damen’s face, on the span of his shoulders, his skin oiled for the tussle. He had dreamed of beating him at wrestling, of seeing again that blend of admiration and wistfulness Damen had directed towards him when he had been picked out for service at the Kingsmeet. He had never taken himself in hand and thought of Damianos before him, spreading his legs and aching to be fucked.

The Prince was still talking. Nikandros felt every word like the press of a blade. “Even now you’re remiss in your duties. You should let him know how much you appreciate it, how you love the feeling of his cock inside you.” He reached out and took Damianos’ cock into his hand.

Nikandros felt the change in Damen’s body. The Prince was blond and looked like one of the statues Nereus had in his gardens, looked like any of the pale-haired slaves Adrastus had trained for Damianos at Ios. But he was a malicious brat who shied away from no cruelty. He deserved no attention from Damen.

Nikandros angled his hips and Damen squirmed. The Prince continued on, “You were wasted as a soldier. It would have been much better if you’d spent your time like this, bent over and taking it like you’d die if he pulled out. Servicing the garrison like a pet, if you liked the killing so much.”

Damen’s knees buckled and he let out a hoarse cry. Nikandros must have brushed against his prostate. The Prince dropped his cock, looking a little as though someone had struck him. Damen’s cock, released, did not quite fall down against his thigh. Nikandros felt acutely aware of it, the Prince’s words still ringing in his ears.

“Beg him for it,” said the Prince.

Nikandros did not let up on him. If noises of pleasure, indistinct, fell from Damen’s mouth, any words he gritted out would be lost among them. But for all his intentions, he still froze in place when the Prince’s hand fell to his hip. Obedient as a slave, he let himself be pushed back so that part of his cock slid out of Damianos. Still, he stood there, breaths uneven, Damen split open on his cock.

“Shallower,” said the Prince to him. “Let him fuck himself on it.” Then again to Damianos, “Beg.”

He heard Damen’s intake of breath, felt the shift of his shoulders. “Please, Your Highness,” he muttered without conviction.

“It’s not me you should be begging. I won’t sully myself with Akielon filth,” came the response. “And do it properly.”

“Please,” said Damen, and swallowed back Nikandros’ name. “Fuck me.”

That was even worse. His cock didn’t agree. It reacted to Damen’s words when, on further insistence from the Prince, he was obliged to speak further. For his part, the Prince moved his hand over to Damen’s hip, over which it hovered uncertainly for a moment. He pushed a little, so that Damen’s hips rocked back and forward again over Nikandros’ cock.

It was too much. Nikandros pressed himself against Damen’s back, resting his head against his shoulder, so that he felt the words more than he heard them, interspersed with grunts and gasps. It was less him now than it was Damen fucking himself on his cock, taking him as desperately as any slave he’d told to hurry before his meetings.

“Take me, please, I need it, I need,” came the stumble of words, and Nikandros couldn’t help it. The words were in Veretian, accented with Akielon, but he heard them as though in reverse, like the new slaves he’d taken into his household the past year, who came from old occupied Delpha, had sounded.

He drove into Damen helplessly, fucking him as roughly as he had fucked his slaves when the people who struggled to adapt back to Akielon customs came to bother him. Even then the Prince’s hand came back to wind itself around Damen’s cock and hold it in place.

Nikandros could have screamed, steeling himself again for the words that must now come, some new humiliation that was to follow. But there was none of that, just the clenching of Damen’s arse against his cock, which tipped him finally over the edge. He closed his eyes and came, desperately, still inside Damen.

When he had recovered from the aftershocks and opened his eyes, he found that the Prince had pulled away and, grimacing, was wiping his hand on a handkerchief.

“Adequate,” he said. Despite everything, Nikandros' cock gave a twitch inside Damianos.

Nikandros pulled out of him, and though the air hit his cock, did not wait before taking two steps back. He wondered what part of his meagre clothing would best serve as a cloth to wipe Damianos down. He wondered how he would be able to face Damen at all.

The Prince dropped his handkerchief into the chamber pot and, turning his back on them, did not submit them to more of his tongue, but only knocked on the doors and was duly admitted out.

They were left alone.

It was a long time before either of them spoke.