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Pawn Sacrifice

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It was a tiny mistake—anyone could have made it. Auguste leaned too far into his strike, and the soft ground beneath him gave way, just a little. Just enough that his slash went wide, leaving his left side open. Damen saw his chance. He turned his blade and dove for the prince’s undefended flank. The sword found its mark, and Auguste’s eyes widened in fleeting shock.

Then Damen dumped him on the trampled grass of the practice yard. “That’s two,” he said, breathless and a little smug. “Shall we make it three out of five?”

Auguste shook his head. “You’ll only knock me down again, and it’s undignified.” He accepted Damen’s outstretched hand and let himself be hauled to his feet. “They said you were good, but they undersold you. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a swordsman like you, and you’ve barely grown into your reach.”

Damen shook his head. “You took me in the second bout, remember. I think we’re evenly matched.”

“A diplomatic answer if I’ve ever heard one,” Auguste replied, laughing. “But I don’t mind telling you that I wouldn’t want to meet you on the battlefield.”

“Nor I you.” Damen lifted the hem of his shirt to wipe the sweat out of his eyes. The shirt was in the Veretian style, which meant there was rather more fabric than he was accustomed to, and it was both heavy and hot. “But I think our countries’ peace will hold for a while yet.”

“Vere would beat Akielos anyway,” a voice piped up from the edge of the practice ground. Auguste’s little brother was sitting on the fence rail with a half-eaten green apple in one hand. He was twelve or maybe thirteen, and he made an effort not to look like he was following his older brother around. Watching Auguste lose a fight, even a friendly contest, couldn’t have pleased him.

“Oh, yes? How do you know that?” Damen asked, skirting the line between politeness and sarcasm.

“We have better archers, and our border forts have never been taken.”

Marlas was taken, Damen nearly said, but that wound was still too fresh. “That presumes Akielos would be the aggressor,” he said instead. “How do you know that the next war will not be a Veretian incursion into Akielon lands?”

“What does Akielos have that Vere would want?” Laurent sneered.

Auguste cleared his throat. “Laurent. Weren’t you supposed to be with the language master?”

“My Akielon is better than hers,” he replied, in prim but perfect Akielon.

Damen grinned. “Maybe, but your accent could use some work.”

Laurent flushed bright red and glared at him. “I’m right, though,” he said, in Veretian this time. “Vere would beat Akielos in the next war.”

“Better not to find out,” Auguste said, ruffling Laurent’s hair. “Wouldn’t you rather fight alongside Akielos, against a common enemy? Perhaps the Vaskian tribes. If they ever gather themselves, they would be a formidable enemy.”

Damen nodded. “There, you see? You should have your language master teach you Vaskian next.”

Laurent hopped off the fence, said something very rude in Akielon, and stalked back towards the palace.

“I don’t think I caught that last bit,” Auguste said mildly.

Damen shook his head. “Let’s just say he didn’t learn that from any proper tutor.”

Auguste laughed and then winced, rubbing his bruised side. “That boy can wield words better than either of us can swing a sword. I think I’ll make him ambassador when I’m king, but only if I need to start a war.” He slung an arm over Damen’s shoulder. “Come on, let’s go inside and clean up. It’s nearly time for supper, and no doubt my father has a dozen courses planned, with entertainment to match.”

 

* * *

 

Damen’s horse struck the flagstone path with one iron-shod foot, kicking up a tiny spark and jolting him out of his reverie. It seemed like a very long time ago that he had been in Vere, but some days it also seemed like it had barely ended. And now he was returning, for a more somber purpose.

Seven years had changed the palace at Arles very little, from the outside. The walls of the palace were the same, high and white and covered with carvings and finials. But now the bright blue pennants had been changed for black, and the palace was in mourning.

Vere mourned as it did everything else—elaborately and extensively, with mourning rites that lasted fifty days. The news had taken ten days to reach Akielos, and it had been another five before their party was ready to set out, yet they were still arriving two weeks before the end of formal mourning.

He was honored that his father had sent him to bring Akielos’ condolences in person, though the king’s parting words still rang uneasily in his ears.

“Go, and learn what you can of their defenses while you are there.”

“Their defenses? Are we at war with Vere, Father?”

There was the briefest of pauses, a cough carefully suppressed. “Of course not. But only a fool would waste the chance to learn more of his ally’s strengths and weaknesses, so that he knows how well they may be relied upon in a time of need.”

Damen had bowed and thanked his father for his wisdom, but he rode into the courtyard at Arles knowing that his purpose here was twofold at least.

He left his horse and his retinue in the courtyard and allowed the guard to lead him to the throne room alone. By now, the king had surely been informed of the Akielon delegation’s arrival and would be waiting to receive them, despite the late hour.

Damen passed by the guards at the doorway and walked up the long hall to the foot of the throne, where a black-clad figure waited. He offered a bow of such depth that his father would have reprimanded him for unseemly subservience. “Your Majesty, Akielos grieves with you.”

The man on the throne shifted as though to rise, but propriety held him in place. “Damn it, Damianos, there is no need for such ceremony.”

Damen straightened up, and then Auguste descended from the dais to embrace him.

“I am so sorry about your father,” Damen said, with less formality and more feeling than before. “How are you faring?”

Auguste offered him a weak smile; his prince’s circlet glinted on his brow. “Well enough. As soon as the mourning period is ended, they will hold the coronation.” He looked ill at the prospect.

“You have nothing to fear—you will be a good king, and the people love you already.”

“I hope so. I only...I thought it would be years before this happened. I thought my father would grow old, abdicate his crown, and live to a hundred. I thought...I thought I would be ready.”

Hearing his own doubts in Auguste’s voice was strangely comforting. At least he was not the only one who worried about the future.

Auguste took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “But you did not come here to listen to all of my fears. You and your company have ridden a long time, I am certain, and will want your rest.” He gestured to one of the guards standing along the wall. “Philippe, please have the staff see to the needs of the Akielon delegation. Damen, you shall have apartments in the royal family’s wing, as you did once before—there are certainly enough rooms there. I will have your personal guard sent up to join you, but in the meantime my own steward will see you to your rooms. Go and rest, and in the morning we will talk.”

Damen inclined his head. “Thank you, Your Ma—”

“If you call me anything but Auguste you can sleep in the stables,” he warned.

“As you like, Auguste,” Damen said, pursing his lips to hide a smile. It was good to know that his friend was still there, within this sad-eyed prince.

Damen followed the steward down a long passageway and up the broad, shallow stairs to the royal apartments. The staircase was utterly indefensible, lined with a carved marble balustrade and lacking the narrow spiral of the staircases in Akielon fortresses. High ground would offer only the faintest of advantages in an attack.

But then, this was Arles, the capital. If the fighting reached this deep into Vere, there would be precious little left to defend.

The corridors in the royal wing were lined with windows. Most of the delicate wooden shutters were latched against the cool night air, but here and there a window stood open, offering a breath of breeze and a view down into the gardens.

The steward stopped outside an elaborately carved door. “If you have need of anything, you may ask any servant,” he said, offering Damen a bow.

“I thank you,” Damen replied, and the steward handed him the key before walking away. Damen felt the long days of riding descend over him like a cloud—suddenly all he wanted was rest. He reached out to unlock the door.

A hinge creaked, and a slim figure stepped out of a door at the end of the long hall. Damen looked away quickly, supposing the stranger to be a pet. Nearly every noble in the palace kept one, save Auguste himself, but Damen had always felt a little uncomfortable with the practice. It wasn’t that Akielos was prudish about sex, but they did consider it something to be practiced behind closed doors. The open entertainments of Vere only served as a pointed reminder of how far he was from home.

But the pet was walking towards him now, so Damen supposed he would have to put off his rest for a few moments more, for the sake of courtesy. He lifted his head, ignoring the pull of exhausted muscles, and found himself face to face with Laurent of Vere.

Seven years had given him a scant few inches in height but had fulfilled the youthful promise of beauty to come. He wore the severe black velvet of royal mourning, which accentuated his slender build and fine, pale skin. In the dim light from the lamps he was all of marble and gold, a sculpture shaped by a masterful hand.

Oh no.

Laurent blinked. “Damianos,” he said, dipping his head in the slightest bow.

Damen recovered himself and returned the gesture. “Laurent.” He only just managed to avoid some inanity like you’ve grown, which was obvious at best and lecherous at worst. “I am so sorry for the loss of your father.”

“Thank you,” he said, with a cool poise that left Damen wondering how this could be the same tagalong boy who once called him a whoreson bastard in painstakingly accurate Akielon.

Damen struggled for something else to say, but exhaustion and surprise had combined to render him practically mute. Laurent, quite unexpectedly, spared him the effort.

“You must have had a very long ride, and I do not mean to keep you from your rest. I will see you tomorrow, I am sure.”

Damen nodded. “I look forward to it.” He pushed open the door to his quarters and, with a supreme effort of will, stepped inside without looking back.

Chapter Text

In the morning, Prince Auguste—he was not yet King Auguste, and would not be for a fortnight—formally welcomed the Akielon delegation in front of the court. Laurent sat on the dais with his brother, off to one side. He performed all the greetings that tradition demanded of him, but his expression never varied from slightly bored attention. Damen knew better than to stare, but he found himself stealing glances at the prince anyway, while the Veretian high council droned on about alliance and tradition and ‘our brothers of Akielos.’

Tradition was a strangely-chosen word. Over the last few centuries, Vere and Akielos had been at war more often than not. The last war was not even ten years distant, and the treaty brokered by Patras had left a sour taste in both countries’ mouths. Vere had been forced to cede the disputed territory of Delfeur, including the fortress at Marlas, and the northeastern border had been redrawn to Vere’s advantage, depriving Akielos of a bountiful trade route. Each nation still harbored some ill feeling for the other, and every summer brought reports of skirmishes and raids among the villages on either side of the border.

The banquet that followed the ceremony lasted most of the afternoon. Seated with his personal guard at the same high table as the royal family, Damen felt curiously isolated. He preferred, when ceremony did not dictate otherwise, to eat alongside his soldiers, to judge for himself their condition and their mood. Though he could speak Veretian nearly as well as he could Akielon, it was still strange to find himself surrounded by the babble of voices in a tongue that was not his own.

“How was your journey, truly?” Auguste asked him, midway between the third and fourth course.

“Uneventful,” Damen replied honestly. “We had only a few days of rain, and your trade routes are well-kept—we lost no time to poor conditions.”

Auguste smiled a little. “Father was always very careful to ask merchants how they found the roads,” he said, “and if they complained, he sent a team to make repairs. I suppose that will fall to me now,” he added, dropping back into quiet thought.

On Damen’s other side, two of his personal guards were discussing Veretian gossip in quiet Akielon, for privacy’s sake. Damen listened when the Veretian conversation around him ebbed, and in so doing he found that they had learned a great deal in a single day. After all, Damen could not seek out information about the King’s death on his own, as it would be grossly inappropriate, but gossip spread among soldiers faster than in any marketplace.

The message that had reached Ios was brief and lacking any details, just a coded King Aleron dead, Auguste to be crowned. But the general rumor was that King Aleron’s horse had foundered in the hunt, throwing him off. He landed badly, they said, but might have lived if the horse had not fallen on top of him. A tragic accident, witnessed by nearly a dozen other riders.

At least that put aside the notion of foul play. For all that the Veretians thought Akielos was brutal, there was something honest about a man bringing an army to bear against you or challenging you to single combat. Veretians wielded rumor as well as any blade, and Damen remembered the impenetrable court intrigues from his first visit to Vere.

After the sixth—or perhaps seventh—course, the lower tables were cleared aside, and the entertainment was brought in. These were often court pets, and the skills on display ranged from athletic to erotic and back again. But pets were not much in evidence among the seated nobles, and the performances were acrobatic but decidedly chaste. Damen supposed it would be unseemly for them to carry on with their usual occupations while the kingdom grieved. He remembered what a shock it had been, at nineteen, to discover that so many of the tawdry rumors about Vere were true.

After weeks of riding and a dinner of rich food, no one would have faulted Damen for retiring early. Instead, once the banquet was ended, he changed into more appropriate garments and made his way down to the practice yard.

That was where Auguste found him, in the cool of approaching evening. “My steward said you were here,” he said. “Were you afraid that the long ride had dulled your skills?”

Damen shook his head. “Not at all. It just feels good to hold a sword instead of reins, for once.”

“I am sure it does.” Auguste considered the barrel of practice weapons and drew out a longsword with a worn, leather-wrapped hilt. Then he made his way to the center of the practice ground, opposite Damen.

“You’re still wearing your court clothes,” Damen noted.

“Then I had better take care not to ruin them, hadn’t I?”

“As you are to be king, am I obliged to let you win?”

“You didn’t before, and you won’t now,” Auguste replied. “And I’d not have it any other way.”

Damen’s only answer was a swift overhand strike.

They sparred for a while, each glad to forget the passage of time. Damen was conscious now, as he had not been seven years before, that he was fighting against the man who would be King of Vere—that if war were to break out between their kingdoms, this duel might play out for real.

But it would never come to that. Damen could not imagine a circumstance in which he would willingly fight Auguste. Even if their countrymen came to blows, they would find some way to end the fighting peacefully, together.

“Enough,” Auguste said at last. He cast his sword aside and fell back onto the grass, breathing heavily. Damen collapsed beside him, and they watched the clouds pass overhead in the fading sunset light.

“The last time we did this, your brother sat on the fence and insulted me in my own tongue,” Damen said.

Auguste laughed. “I remember that. I think he was quite fond of you, really. He moped for weeks after you left.”

“If that was fondness, I’d hate to see dislike.”

“Yes, you would. I worry for him, now that Father is gone. While you’re here, will you look out for him? As a favor to me?”

Damen had to smile. “He isn’t thirteen anymore.”

“No, of course not. But I still worry about him. You know how court can be. And he’s grown up...different. Cold.”

“Cold? Even to you?” Laurent had all but worshipped Auguste when he was younger. Damen had sometimes worried that he would trip over the boy, as he was constantly underfoot.

“Not to me, no. But the general opinion of the court is that he’s impossible, and after last fall, I’m nearly inclined to believe them.”

Damen waited, almost patiently, for Auguste to fill in the details.

“He had a suitor in the fall, a young lord from Patras. He came with Torveld, the ambassador—an old friend of the Patran royal family, or some such thing. Laurent seemed to get along well with him, and once I swear I even saw him smile. They went riding together, walked the gardens, all of the things that courting couples do. And then Laurent stabbed him with a dinner fork.”

“He did what?” Damen glanced reflexively towards the fence, half-expecting Laurent to be sitting there once more. “Are you certain?”

“No one saw it happen. But the lord came raging out of the gardens with a neat set of holes in his thigh, proclaiming to all who would hear him that ‘the young prince’ was violently mad. He left with his retinue the very next morning.”

“Did no one ask Laurent about the incident? Surely he could resolve any misunderstanding.”

“He could, I’m sure, but he refuses to discuss the matter. He won’t even deny stabbing the man. And it very nearly upset the terms of our treaty with Patras.”

Damen wondered what could make Laurent attack a suitor with cutlery. He certainly didn’t seem the type to do such a thing on a whim, but people harbored strange secrets and hidden depths, Veretians more than most. “You want me to make friends with him, then.”

“I—yes, that would be good for him, I think. Court can be a terribly lonely place.”

“Then I will do what I can,” Damen said.

 

* * *

 

Because Auguste spent much of his time with the council, or at the head of the royal table, Damen often found himself seated beside Laurent at meals and ceremonies. He could not help but see Auguste’s hand in that arrangement, but it was sensible—they were nearest to each other in rank as well as age. At any rate, it was more pleasant than being sat next to one of the councilors, who always seemed to mistake his politeness for eagerness to learn more about Veretian trading disputes.

And Auguste had asked Damen to draw Laurent out, so he did try. Yet his attempts at conversation were often met with terse responses, or a simple raised eyebrow. It was endlessly frustrating. Damen had never lacked for friends; soldiers and kyroi alike respected him, and even seemed to enjoy his company. But he could not get Laurent’s measure at all.

On his sixth night in Vere, with more than a week left in formal mourning, Damen came to dinner still sore from another sparring match with Auguste. It put him in mind of their old duels, years ago, and perhaps that was why he turned to Laurent and asked, “Did your language master ever teach you Vaskian?”

Laurent continued buttering his roll and said something unintelligible, all liquid consonant sounds.

“I’ll take that as a yes, though it was probably ruder than that.”

Laurent gave him an arch look and changed back to Veretian. “You don’t speak Vaskian?”

“Only a bit. We don’t share a border with Vask,” Damen pointed out. “But my Patran is good, and my Veretian seems to serve.”

“Your accent could use some work.”

“My accent is fine,” Damen countered. But now that Laurent had made him think about it, he was bound to over-pronounce everything for the rest of the evening. “Ass,” he added in Akielon.

Laurent’s lips thinned for a heartbeat, like he was trying to press back a smile, and Damen counted that as victory enough for one evening.

 

The next morning, Damen was swimming easy laps in the baths when Laurent appeared, laced into his velvets and entirely overdressed for the heat of the room. The steam in the air set his hair to curling, just a little, but he looked otherwise unaffected. Damen paused in his laps long enough to offer him a nod in greeting, and then he turned back to his swimming. He tried to focus on his form, on the rhythm of his breathing, and not on the fact that he was absolutely naked. Did Laurent mean to join him in the pool? And if so, how long would Damen be forced to continue before he could make a polite exit?

But when he stopped for breath, a few lengths later, Laurent had not made any move to get into the pool. Damen couldn’t fathom what he was doing here.

“Aren’t you going to swim?” he asked.

“No.” Laurent sat cross-legged at the marble edge of the pool, looking impossibly at ease.

“Shy? Or are you only here to critique my stroke?” Damen spoke without inflection; if Laurent wanted to see flirtation in his words, that was his choice.

“I would not dream of criticizing another man’s stroke. You may carry on as you please.”

“And turn my back of a prince of Vere? I would not dare offer such an insult.” Instead, Damen lazily swam back towards the edge of the pool, stopping a few feet away from Laurent. This close to the edge, the water only came up to his waist, and he did not need to tread water. The lamp-light reflecting off the surface left Damen satisfied that Laurent would not be able to see any part of him that was beneath the water, yet he still felt exposed, his skin prickling with a chill.

Laurent’s gaze drifted, and Damen felt a brief spark of hope before Laurent’s eyes caught on the faded scar near his hip.

“Where did you get that?” he asked. “Has there been much fighting, in Akielos?”

Damen’s hand rose to cover the mark. “This? No, this isn’t a battle scar. It’s a warning against hubris,” he said wryly.

“That sounds like the beginning of a story.”

Damen ducked beneath the water and came up again, shaking his hair back from his face. It was awkward, holding a conversation while naked and half in the pool, but he was trapped. Pride wouldn’t allow him to ask Laurent to look away while he retrieved a towel, and reserve wouldn’t let him ignore Laurent’s presence and simply climb out of the pool as he was.

Damen suspected Laurent was doing this on purpose.

“When I was thirteen, my father gathered the kyroi at Ios and formally introduced me as his heir. It was no surprise, but there was a great deal of ceremony, at least as such things are considered in Akielos. By the end of the day I was all but dancing with high spirits, and I asked my brother Kastor to come to the practice yard with me. He is like your brother in that way, forever ready to train.

“So we went to the practice yard in the field beyond the palace, and we fought back and forth across the whole length of it, putting each other to the test. We are closer in age than you and Auguste—there are only nine years’ difference between us—but that space was enough that I could only rarely get a strike at him. But if my swordplay bored him, he never told me.

“After a while, he put up his practice sword, and I thought that we were done. But then he came back with a pair of true-steel swords, finely made and sharpened. I was prouder then than I was when my father laid a laurel crown on my head that morning—my brother thought I was ready to fight as men do.”

Laurent’s expression did not change. “What happened then?”

“It took less than five minutes. I parried badly, and before Kastor could pull the blow, his sword was in my side. He ran to get help, but even through the pain that came after, I remember being honored that my brother had finally begun to see me as his equal.”

Laurent was silent for a moment. “I can see,” he said at last, “how such a scar might serve as a warning.” He rose. “I have already taken enough of your time. I will leave you to your exercise.”

“If you like,” Damen said.

Laurent nodded stiffly and crossed the room. When he reached the doorway, he paused and turned back. “I came down here to ask if you played chess,” he said flatly.

It was plain enough that Auguste had put him up to this, just as Auguste had asked Damen to be friendly towards Laurent. A set-up on all sides. “I play a bit.”

“Is that false modesty I hear?”

Damen grinned. “No, true modesty. I lose at least as often as I win.”

“I see. If you are bored of an evening, you may come by my rooms for a game.”

The very awkwardness of the invitation made it somehow more genuine. Perhaps Laurent really was lonely for a friend. “I would be honored,” Damen said.

 

After supper that evening, Damen sent one of his guards to inquire whether Laurent was in his rooms. The guard returned to escort him, and Damen allowed himself the brief vanity of glancing into a looking-glass before he left. He never felt at home in Veretian clothing; it was fussy and constricting, and even the fabrics did not suit him. But traipsing around Arles in a chiton would have every noble in the palace whispering about Akielon savages, and so he had to content himself with this.

Laurent was reading when the servant showed him in. He looked up and laid the book aside. “Damianos,” he said.

“Laurent. You wanted to play chess?”

He gestured to the seat across the small table. Damen sat down and found that a chessboard was inlaid into the table itself, with squares of oak and rosewood. The marble chess pieces fit neatly into a velvet-lined drawer that pulled out from the table—the white were shot through with rosy pink, and the black with streaks of pure white. Damen knew immediately that his skills were not worthy of a table like this.

But he had agreed to play, and it was pleasure enough to be alone with Laurent, without the clamor of the court around them. They settled the pieces on the board, Laurent’s white and Damen’s black.

Damen took a deep breath. “I would ask that you not show mercy for my poor skills...but I do not think you would, anyway.”

“It isn’t likely,” Laurent allowed. “But you may have the first move, as you are a guest.”

“And I will need every advantage I am given. Very well, I accept,” Damen said, and he moved a pawn forward cautiously.

Damen played to the best of his ability, but they were scarcely five moves into the first game before he realized that he was hopelessly outmatched. Laurent had a counter for every move that Damen made, and Laurent’s own tactics were as sophisticated and convoluted as Veretian court drama.

Laurent won the first game within five minutes, and the second in another ten. They were now nearly a quarter of an hour into their third match, but Damen knew it was only a matter of time before Laurent won again.

“I know your problem.” Laurent moved his queen to capture one of Damen’s pawns.

Damen considered the board and set his remaining knight in pursuit of the queen. “Do enlighten me.”

“You,” he said, “are not accustomed to sacrificing things.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Laurent gestured to the board. “You protect your queen as much as your king, but you hobble her in so doing. To use the piece to its potential is to risk it, yes, but to keep it in reserve may cost you the game.”

“But the line between a bold play and a reckless one is thin indeed.”

“Do you suppose I am bold, then, or reckless?”

“I would not dare accuse a Veretian prince of recklessness.”

“In truth, I am neither. I simply know exactly how much I am willing to sacrifice to protect my king.” Laurent’s voice was calm and serious, and Damen was no longer sure they were still talking about chess.

“And how much is that?”

Laurent gestured to the near-barren board. “Everything.”

“Then what is the victory worth? If it costs you everything, there is nothing left to rule over.”

“Better a terrible victory than a surrender, surely.”

But those were not the only two choices. A country, or a man, could fight to the bitter end—and still lose. Was it better to sacrifice everything in a hopeless battle, or to submit and survive?

All this distracting talk had left Laurent’s queen vulnerable; Damen took it with his knight, unable to hide a smile. “Your strategy of sacrifice leaves something to be desired.”

“I am not afraid to die for Vere,” Laurent said. “Of course, I am not resigned to it, either.” He slid a rook horizontally across the board.

Damen reached out to move his king out of danger and hesitated. Then he swore quietly and let his hand fall. “Checkmate,” he muttered. “And I never saw it coming.”

“You will next time,” Laurent said bracingly.

Damen smiled. “Yes. Next time.”

 

* * *

 

The spring weather was beginning to warm towards summer, and the servants took every opportunity to serve breakfast in the gardens. Damen had to admit that the grounds made a fine sight, with dew scattered like jewels on the grass and blossoms just opening to the morning sun.

There were small tables scattered throughout this part of the garden, piled high with bowls of sugared fruits and pitchers of honey. Damen chose an isolated table behind a vine-laden arch and sat down. A few moments later, someone sat beside him, without waiting to be welcomed.

Damen turned, and Laurent nodded to him. He poured himself a cup of water from the ewer on the table without a word, but with every sign of contentment.

But of course it was not to last. Scarcely a few moments later, a courtier approached, arm in arm with her pet. She offered a deep curtsey to Laurent, while intentionally ignoring Damen’s presence.

 “You look very fine this morning, my lord,” she said.

Laurent took a sip from his cup. “Thank you.”

Even Damen, unaccustomed to Veretian manners as he was, knew that it was proper to offer a similar compliment in return—but Laurent gave no indication that he intended to do so.

The courtier, bolder or less astute than most, forged ahead. “Have you given a thought to what you will wear for the coronation ball? My seamstress has just brought in the loveliest velvets for the new season, in colors that I am certain would look—"

Laurent raised one finger; the courtier stopped.

“Allow me to save you the effort. If you mean to curry favor with the new king through me, you are out of your depth. There is little I want and even less that I need; you will not be able to bind me to you with debts or promises, and you need not try to appeal to my honor. After all, it is commonly whispered that I have none.”

The courtier’s mouth snapped closed. She bowed stiffly and walked away, giving little outward sign of her affront. Her pet, however, was less circumspect, and she turned back to give Laurent a look of purest poison.

Damen waited until the courtier had vanished inside. “Tell me,” he said, reaching for a strawberry. “Do you enjoy being disagreeable?”

“Enjoy it? No,” Laurent said. He laid his napkin beside his plate. “Damianos, what purpose do you think I serve in my brother’s court?”

He blinked. “You are a prince; you need no purpose save that.”

“Ah, yes. So I am to sit here, whiling away my years, waiting for Auguste to die by some mischance, or for him to produce an heir and render me redundant? No. I know that some of the nobles call me the Spare Prince, but I made up my mind long ago to be more than that. You see, Auguste is rather like you—straightforward, in the best and worst ways. His skill at strategy is unmatched on the battlefield, but it does not extend into the realm of palace life. Yet there is as much danger in courtly intrigue as in a pitched battle, and your enemies do not do you the favor of wearing foreign clothes and standing at the other end of a field. Our king has no patience for such games. He believes that everyone is as honorable as he is, while I know that no one is. I am to deal with the court so that he does not have to.” He plucked the forgotten strawberry from Damen’s hand, dipped it in the little bowl of sugar, and ate it. “So you see, I am not disagreeable for my own sake. Rather, it is my duty to be disagreeable, for the king will not.”

Damen considered Laurent’s speech for a moment. “It seems lonely. Is there no one you trust?”

“I trust my king, and very few others.”

“Do you trust me?”

Laurent regarded him with an almost feline calmness. Damen could easily imagine a tail, twitching lazily somewhere out of sight. “What makes you think that I will tell you true?”

“You are disagreeable, not dishonest. I don’t think you will lie to spare my feelings.”

Laurent seemed to accept this, but he did not answer straightaway. He selected a slice of nectarine and ate it slowly. “I think that you can be trusted, but Akielos cannot,” he said at last. “I have studied the last war, accounts from both sides, and I know that its ending was not as anyone wished. Your father the king has chafed at the redrawn borders ever since. Did you never wonder why you were sent here, seven years ago?”

“To strengthen the trust between our nations,” Damen said, but he felt unaccountably like he was at sea, and the wind was changing.

“Indeed. Particularly, to foster Veretian trust of Akielos. That summer, Makedon had begun raiding along the border, crossing into Vere to attack some of the villages there. My father ‘invited’ yours to send you to Arles for a season, as—”

“As a hostage.”

“As a guest of the royal family,” Laurent said smoothly.

“A guest who could be easily beheaded should my father’s generals overstep their bounds.”

“Perhaps.”

Damen remembered how pleased he had been, to be chosen to represent Akielos among the Veretians. How could he have been so naïve? “Would he have done it?” King Aleron was a distant figure in Damen’s memory, tall and broad-shouldered, with a beard far darker than his sons’ hair. He had welcomed Damen to Vere, but he had more important matters to attend to than making idle conversation with a teenager—especially one whose father he suspected of fomenting war.

“I don’t think so,” Laurent replied. “But your father believed that he would, which was the point. After all, I am sure it is what he

would have done, were our parts reversed.”

Damen thought of Auguste, a guest at Ios, taken and forced to his knees before the block. His imagination shifted, and the cheek pressed to the block was not Auguste’s, but Laurent’s...

A chill crawled up his spine. “Thank you,” he said, wrenching his attention back to the present.

“For what?”

“Your honesty. I cannot say I am pleased to hear it, but it is...appreciated.” He rose from the table and had nearly reached the archway when some instinct forced him to turn back. Laurent looked very much alone, sitting in the shade of the bower.

Damen was speaking before he realized it. “You should know that if our places had been exchanged...I would not have allowed harm to come to you. Not you, and not Auguste.”

Laurent’s smile was very thin. “It means a great deal,” he said, “that you would try.”

 

In the evening, Damen sent a servant to ask if Laurent wished to play chess. The servant returned almost immediately.

“My lord says it is a standing invitation,” she said, giving Damen a curious look. “You are welcome at any time, and you need not send a message first.”

“Thank you,” Damen replied. The servant bowed and withdrew, leaving Damen alone with his thoughts.

He had just been granted almost unlimited access to the prince. Did Laurent not know what the servants would assume from that invitation? More likely he simply did not care. Damen did not dare imagine that Laurent would welcome such assumptions, let alone that he had intended anything like what the rumors were bound to say.

He waited the better part of an hour, to keep from seeming overly eager, and then he walked down the long hall to Laurent’s rooms. It was absurd to think that the servants were looking at him with a new sort of suspicion. He was an Akielon in the Veretian palace, which meant they had looked at him this way ever since he arrived.

The guard at the prince’s door—Jord, Damen thought—gave him a friendly enough nod and knocked at the door to announce him.

“Come in,” Laurent called, but when Jord opened the door, Damen found Laurent leaning over a sheaf of papers, deep in conversation with a brown-haired boy of perhaps thirteen. Vannes sat nearby, leafing through a book that seemed to be written in Vaskian.

Everyone looked up, and Damen felt rather like an insect pinned to a piece of cork.  “Pardon my intrusion,” he said. “I had come to see Laurent.”

“Of course,” Vannes said, rising from her seat. “You would not come here to find me.” She turned to Laurent and the boy and said something in Vaskian.

The boy mumbled something back to her. Laurent said nothing, but only gave him a look. The boy flushed and repeated himself, in clear if halting Vaskian. Damen caught the words for thank you.

Vannes bowed to Laurent and left the room.

“Forgive me,” Damen said again. “I did not mean to intrude. If you are occupied, I can return later.”

“No, no. We are nearly concluded here, I think.”

The boy rolled his eyes, but Laurent ignored him and gestured to Damen.

“Damen, this is Nicaise. Nicaise, Prince Damianos of Akielos.”

Nicaise eyed him with flinty dislike, and Damen fought the urge to smile. It was like being hated by a small cat. Oh, it was clear enough that this kitten had learned his manners from Laurent, but he lacked the glint of true danger that lay behind Laurent’s eyes.

Damen bowed his head a fraction and summoned what little Vaskian he knew. “I am honored,” he said.

Nicaise rose from the table and walked out.

Laurent began collecting the scattered papers, clearing the table for chess. “It seems we will need to discuss the proper occasions on which to attend to one’s manners—again.”

“He’ll grow out of it. You did.”

“Did I? As I recall, someone recently told me that I was ‘disagreeable.’”

“When you want to be, yes. But you choose your occasions. Undoubtedly Nicaise will master that distinction as well, in time.”

“Some would argue that I am the last person who ought to advise someone on appropriate occasions for rudeness.”

Damen could not help but smile. “If I insulted him, please tell him that it was not intended. I thought perhaps he was Vaskian.”

“No, he is from Vere. Vannes has more Vaskian than anyone else in the court, and she was assisting us in lessons today.”

“Lessons.”

“Vaskian language, among other things.”

Damen glanced down at the few papers still lying on the table. Even upside down, he could see the nonsense symbols translated into words. “Code-breaking?”

“Mm.”

It was strange to look down at the key to a code that might have hidden battle plans only a few short years before. This was just the sort of thing that Damen’s father would want to know about. If Damen could contrive to bring home a key to this code, it might mean an advantage for Akielos in the next war.

He shivered suddenly. The next war, as though such things were inevitable. He cast about for a distraction. “Nicaise, you said. What is he doing here at court? He’s too young to be someone’s pet.”

“That is true,” Laurent said, after a pause. “His mother was a captain in the King’s Riders, and his father is a court scribe who served my father. Nicaise has been at Arles nearly his whole life.”

“And why, exactly, does he hate me?”

Laurent shrugged. “Don’t take it personally. I don’t think he likes me much, either. But you can trust him.”

“Oh? And how do you know that?”

“I cannot share my reasons without breaking a confidence. But I told you before that there were few people whom I trust in this court, and Nicaise is among their number. You may believe me or not, as you choose.”

“I believe you,” Damen said. He sat down opposite Laurent without waiting for an invitation. “Come on, then, unless you want to bring Vannes back. My Vaskian could use some improving, as well.”

Laurent laid the rest of the papers aside and drew the white chess pieces out of their drawer. Damen felt a brief pang of regret as the last of the code-papers was tucked away out of sight, but he put it out of his mind and settled in to play.

It was a massacre, but it was always going to be a massacre. Whenever Damen thought he had gained an advantage, it was as though Laurent simply turned a page, revealing another layer of strategy. His play was as frustrating as it was elegant, and Damen knew he would never be able to match him.

Very well. After Damen’s inevitable loss, they set the pieces back in their places without a word. Damen gestured to Laurent to begin, as was his right as the victor, and then on his own turn he moved a pawn. Then a rook—a knight—two more pawns. He played without thought or finesse, sacrificing some pieces and snapping up others without mercy.

Laurent’s expression gradually darkened as the game wore on. At long last, he took Damen’s knight with his last pawn, putting the black king into check, and Damen immediately took the pawn with his king.

Then, only the two kings were left, staring each other down across the length of the board.

“Draw,” Laurent said, sitting back. His lips were pressed together tightly in disapproval.

“As near to a victory as I’ll ever get, I imagine,” Damen said, keeping a tight rein on his pride.

“Now, tell me what it is you were doing. What was your strategy? I could not make it out.”

“There was no strategy,” Damen confessed. “I simply began moving pieces at random, in the hopes that it would confuse you. I did not expect to fight you to a draw, I only sought to annoy you as I lost.”

His frown deepened. “Chess is meant to be a battle. That was all but cheating.”

“I did nothing against the rules of the game, only the rules that you thought you knew. But come now—the moon is full,” he said, on a sudden inspiration. “We could put the game aside and go riding.”

“If that is what you would prefer, you are certainly free to go.”

Damen raised an eyebrow. “I meant that we both might go. A solitary ride would be less entertaining. If you do not wish to go, then I will stay as well.”

“It is not that I do not wish to; rather, I am not permitted.”

“Not permitted? What do you mean?”

Laurent tipped his head slightly to one side, considering. “Surely my brother told you? But no, perhaps not. It is not commonly known, so he would only speak of it in absolute privacy, and that is rare enough for him, these days.”

“Laurent, what is happening? Are you unwell?”

“Not at all.” He spared a brief glance at the door, beyond which their guards were stationed. “I seem to be the target of an assassin.”

Damen’s mind whirled, but as he considered the matter, it began to make sense. He had not seen Laurent out-of-doors since he had arrived; the courtyards and gardens hardly counted, as they could be easily guarded. He had not seen Laurent venture even so far as the stables or the practice yard. Yet to think that there could be an assassin on the loose, and Laurent the target...

“You say that you are the target. Why you, and not your brother?” A king, or a king-to-be, would surely make a more sensible target than a prince.

“My brother, as he is so fond of pointing out, does not make a habit of infuriating every noble and ambassador that he meets.”

“How do you know? Have there been attempts?”

“Incidents, at first—near misses. A fallen bit of masonry, a stray arrow from the direction of a training yard that was not in use at the time. It might all have been chance, of course. But then came Chastillon.”

“Chastillon,” Damen echoed.

“It is an old castle, not far from Arles. My father died there, thrown by his horse and crushed when it fell upon him.”

The words were delivered blandly, without force or emotion, but Laurent’s face told a different story.

“That was an accident,” Damen said gently. “Was it not?”

“It seemed so, yes. But what few know is that the horse he rode that day was mine. I would have ridden her myself, save that I came down ill on the morning of the hunt. I intended to ride anyway, but Auguste caught me clinging to a pillar in the midst of a dizzy spell, and he prevented my going. But my horse was a magnificent creature, always first to the mark, and we thought it a waste to keep her in the stables. So Auguste and I decided that Father should ride her, if he wished.”

“That is poor luck, but it does not make it murder.”

“No? This horse was the calmest you have ever seen, yet on the morning of the hunt the hostlers said that she was restless, fractious. If I had known that, I would have stopped the hunt myself—but I was in my rooms, trying to read while the room spun around me. Someone drugged my horse, Damen, and then they drugged me for good measure. I was meant to die at Chastillon.”

“But why?”

“If I knew that, I would be halfway to knowing the guilty party. But after Chastillon, and the other incidents, Auguste has confined me to the palace. I think he hopes to make me a poor target for the assassin by keeping me indoors. It is exceedingly tiresome—I would sooner lay a trap for the culprit, but Auguste won’t hear it.”

“Of course he won’t,” Damen replied hotly. “It would put you in greater danger.”

“What is worse? One moment of danger, or a lifetime of it? They will not stop, you know. Chastillon was only the beginning. After all, though it seems that the sole purpose of the plot is to eliminate me, only a fool would put a contract on my life without considering the possible consequences. Removing me now would remove the only direct heir to the throne. Then Auguste would only have to trip coming down the stairs, and Vere would be cast into a civil war.”

Damen shook his head. “Is this what you think about all the time?”

“No. Sometimes I think about how to defend against an Akielon invasion,” Laurent replied flatly.

“Ah, yes. I believe the first rule of such a battle is do not let them into your chambers.”

“In which case, I have already lost.”

“Not at all. You could, of course, always stab me with a fork.”

Laurent eyed him impassively. “Still spreading that rumor, are they?”

“So you didn’t stab a Patran noble with your cutlery.”

“No, I did.”

Damen stared. He had heard the rumor from Auguste himself, and then half a dozen other Veretians in the ensuing time, but he had never supposed there was any substance behind it. “Why?”

“Not to be crude, but he tried to ‘stab’ me first.”

What? He tried to take you against your will?”

“No. If he had, I would have stabbed him a great deal harder. He was very vain, and probably did not consider that anyone he chose to dally with might refuse him. I simply wanted to remind him that his were not the only desires in question.”

“And the dinner fork was the most convenient method?”

“The spoon was too dull, and the knife could possibly have caused real damage. The next time my brother asks you about the incident, remember to tell him that I chose my weapon wisely.”

Damen could not help but laugh. Somewhere in the palace, a clock struck a very late hour indeed. “Forgive me,” Damen said, rising from the table. “I did not mean for our talk to turn so grim, and I have kept you very late.”

Laurent shrugged. “I am accustomed to late hours. But you should take a midnight ride sometime, if you are able. As I recall, the grounds are beautiful in the moonlight.”

There was a faint wryness in his voice, as though it had been a very long time since Laurent had gone riding outside the palace, and he expected it to be longer still before he was able to do so again. Damen had nothing to say that would change matters, so he just bowed instead.

“Good night, Laurent.”

“Good night, Damianos.”

Chapter Text

Two weeks after Damen’s arrival at Arles, the formal mourning period ended, and Auguste’s coronation ball could finally be held. Though the ceremony itself was solemn and dignified, the celebration that followed was every bit as lavish and scandalous as Akielon rumor would have suggested. Palace pets, who had spent much of the last weeks in private quarters, were now free to celebrate with their patrons, and the amount of flesh on display made a chiton seem modest.

The evening’s entertainment was unrestrained as well, with extremely flexible acrobats and fire dancers wearing almost nothing. Damen watched from his seat beside the royal dais—it was only polite, after all. But the prurient looks in the eyes of the court suggested that the performers had other skills less suited to public spectacle.

“Is it true that Akielons wrestle in the nude?” Vannes asked, leaning over her pet to speak to Damen.

“It is,” Damen replied. “Clothing restricts one’s movement and provides an opponent better grip. The advantage goes to the one wearing the least.”

“That must be a sight to see.”

It wasn’t erotic, not in the way that Veretian entertainments so often were. It was about honoring what one’s body was capable of doing, and yes, admiration might be part of that, but it was different from Veretian entertainments, and Damen did not know how to explain that. He murmured a vague agreement to Vannes and rose from his seat, taking a turn around the vast ballroom. There were musicians perched on a balcony above, and some couples and triads were dancing to the music. In more isolated corners, nobles and their pets were otherwise occupied.

The two Veretian royals, however, did not participate in any of the more carnal pleasures on offer. If anyone asked Damen why he kept to himself, he could say that he was following the example of the king. It wasn’t that none of the pets had shown interest, tonight or the last time Damen was in Vere, but the whole enterprise seemed fraught with the possibility for embarrassment and misunderstanding. It was safer to keep to himself.

At one end of the ballroom, the doors were thrown open to the gardens, bringing cool air and the scent of jasmine into the room. Auguste, resplendent in white and gold, moved between the various groups of people, making polite conversation and accepting congratulations from everyone. Even Laurent deigned to mingle with the crowd, dressed in royal blue and wearing the prince’s circlet that had for so many years belonged to his brother.

And slipping discreetly among them all were silent servants, moving through the great hall with cups of wine and trays of sweetmeats. Damen was reading for a wine-cup when one of Auguste’s councilors spoke to him.

“How do you find our celebration, Prince Damianos?” he asked.

“It is a fine occasion. I am honored to be present.”

“You have spent much time with the crown prince, of late,” the councilor remarked.

Damen almost frowned. For so long, crown prince had been Auguste’s title. But now that the crown had come to him, Laurent was the only prince—and the heir presumptive, until Auguste began his own family.

“Prince Laurent has been most kind to escort a stranger around the palace,” Damen said at last.

“Ah, but you are not a stranger, are you? You have been a guest of Vere before.”

Damen saw the sneer behind the words and ignored it. Of course the royal council would have known that Damen was little more than a hostage; what was there to be gained by taking offense now?

“Much has changed in seven years, sir,” Damen said. If his eyes strayed to Laurent when he said it, surely it did not mean anything.

“It has indeed,” the councilor replied. “Well, perhaps you will be good for him.”

“How so?”

“I suspect he would be more agreeable after a good fuck.”

Damen jerked, startled, but the councilor was already turning away, taking up a conversation with one of the nobles in attendance.

In Akielos, such an insult would be more than sufficient cause for a duel, but Damen was loath to cause a scene at Auguste’s coronation ball. It would only confirm some of the less-flattering rumors about Akielons—that they were hot-headed, violent, bordering on savage. He tried to tell himself that Laurent would not be bothered by the insult anyway, which was undoubtedly true, but it still took an effort to turn his back on the councilor and accept another cup of wine from a serving girl.

He sipped the wine slowly and made a circuit of the grand hall and the gardens beyond, pausing only to appreciate the views or to share a brief conversation with one noble or another. When he caught sight of Laurent again, he was close by, and Damen felt like a drowning man who had been thrown a rope. He did not care to look too deeply into the source of that feeling.

Which was just as well, as it vanished the next moment when he saw that Laurent was speaking to the vulgar councilor from earlier.

“Thank you, Uncle,” Laurent said, with a bland, polite smile.

Uncle?

“Try to enjoy yourself, my lord,” the councilor said. He glanced up and met Damen’s eyes. “I’m sure if you tried, you would find it easy enough.” He gave an oily smile and bowed to Laurent, pretending that he had not seen Damen’s approach.

Perhaps that was why Damen found himself turning to Laurent, as soon as the man was out of hearing.

“I don’t like him,” he said, and then silently cursed himself. This man was Laurent’s uncle, after all, and this was not Akielos, where enmities were worn openly. This was Vere, where a wrong opinion, or even an unpopular one, was likely to earn him a fork in his leg—or worse.

But Laurent wasn’t looking at him with the expected disdain. His expression was cool, yes, but it always was. Damen thought he was starting to be able to see the differences that accompanied Laurent’s moods.

“Councilor Reynard? Hm. It might be that you are a better judge of character than I supposed,” Laurent said. “But we will not speak more of that here. Will you play me at chess later?”

Damen nodded. “I am at your disposal.”

 

So it was that late in the evening, well after the celebration had ended, a servant came to summon—that was, invite—Damen to Laurent’s rooms for a late supper and a game of chess. They talked of innocent things while the game pieces sat idle, ranged across from each other like opposing armies.

The servants brought a cold supper of bread and meat and cheese and then departed, leaving Laurent and Damen in peace.

“You don’t like your uncle, either,” Damen said, unafraid to broach the topic now that they were alone.

“No, and I will tell you why. But first, tell me what he has done to earn your enmity in a single evening’s time.”

Damen’s face went hot. “There is something unpleasant in his manner that is hard to describe. And when I spoke to him, he made...insinuations.”

“He insulted your character?”

“Not mine,” he said shortly.

“I see.” Laurent poured himself a cup of water, then offered the pitcher to Damen. He added a little to his cup of wine, in the Veretian style, and drank lightly.

Laurent curled his hands around his own cup and gazed into the depths as though scrying. Then he looked up at Damen. “Three years ago, my father outlawed the practice of contracting with pets under the age of sixteen. It scarcely caused a ripple among the nobles, as pets of extreme youth have been out of fashion for a century or more.” Laurent paused. “Councilor Reynard was the reason for the change.”

Damen’s stomach lurched. “You mean that he—?”

“I happened upon him in the gardens, attempting to seduce a noble’s son. The boy was eleven.”

Laurent’s voice was ice-cold and steady, but Damen seethed. In Akielos, such behavior would be punished with a hanging, or a public whipping if the guilty man were a noble. And yet in Vere—

“He was not punished? He was permitted to keep his title, his position? How can Vere allow such a man to play councilor to a king?”

“My uncle’s name was never mentioned in the discussion about changing the law,” Laurent said calmly. “This was at the request of the boy involved. I spoke to Councilor Herode on the boy’s behalf, and Herode put forth the suggestion to change the law. The boy feared the shame that would be brought on his family, if the matter were made public.”

“Shame? But it wasn’t his fault. He was a child, taken advantage of, by a man who knew better. How could he be allowed to feel shame?”

Something had happened to Laurent’s face. For the space of a moment, it was as though a sheet of ice had cracked, revealing dark, swift-moving waters below. Damen could not have named the expression, but he felt suddenly like he was seeing Laurent for the first time.

Then Laurent raised his cup to his lips, and the illusion was gone. “I told the boy all of these things,” he said. “But it is one thing to hear the words, and another to believe them. The boy insisted, and I swore to abide by my promise.”

A part of Damen still cried out for some harder justice, but he knew that the labyrinthine politics of Vere were beyond his understanding. “What happened to the boy? Did he return home with his family?”

“Not at all. His family is here among the court. I suppose I could have encouraged him to visit one of the border forts, but there are so many terrible things that can happen to a boy in a faraway holding. My uncle knows, or at least suspects, that the boy’s silence is the only thing that protects him from the censure of the court—that his position is at the mercy of a boy who is only now entering his teenage years. So I have done my best to make the boy untouchable. I hired him as a member of my household, and I am teaching him to spy.”

“To spy?”

“Yes. Why call it anything but what it is? He is young, and thus often overlooked. He is fair-featured, so his presence inspires gifts and confidences, and here, too, he is underestimated. So many people presume that a pretty face must mask an empty head.”

“Those people must not have met you,” Damen said. Immediately, his face went hot, and he did not dare look up at Laurent to see his reaction.

“No, indeed,” was all Laurent said.

Damen fell silent. Young and fair-featured and being taught to spy. He thought of the ciphers on the table, the language lessons and the code-breaking... “Nicaise,” he said. “Nicaise is the boy.”

Laurent took another sip of water. “If that is the conclusion you have drawn, you would do best to keep it to yourself.”

“Of course. I would never wish to put anyone at risk. Does your uncle know that it was you who interfered?”

“No. He never saw me that day. When I realized what was happening, I sought out a servant and sent him to summon Reynard immediately, inventing some story about Councilor Guion and a message for him. As soon as I saw my uncle leave, I took the boy aside and made sure he was not hurt.”

“It is a shame that you are the youngest,” Damen said. “You would make a fine elder brother.”

Laurent set his cup down on the table. “That is flattery, and it will not serve you. Now, are we going to play chess, or not?”

 

* * *

As Damen stayed longer at Arles, his memory of the palace’s sprawling corridors returned. The library, the kitchens, the stables—he could find his way to any of them more easily if he did not think too hard about his path.

For example, to reach the stables, he could spend several minutes passing through separate wings of the palace, interrupted half a dozen times by nobles and councilors hoping for some Akielon news that they could turn to their advantage...or he could cut across the gardens. There, he would pass only a few couples making use of the gardens’ privacy, and they were rarely interested in long conversation.

But today, as he cut through a garden courtyard, he heard voices from a corner. Damen nearly turned back, thinking of the sort of activity most often carried out in garden alcoves, but then he recognized one of the voices.

“You know I only do this to protect you,” Auguste said in an undertone.

He knew he should not be eavesdropping on the king, but the response seemed to root him to the spot.

“And how long will you continue? Am I to spend my life locked in a tower, for fear of what might lie beyond the walls?”

Laurent.

“If that is what it takes to keep you safe.”

“It is absurd. If we let this would-be assassin frighten us, what does that say about Vere? How can any of our allies perceive us as strong if we cower at the first sign of danger?”

“Enough, Laurent.” Auguste’s voice was sharp. “You know my decision.”

“But if we set a trap, we could find out who hired the assassin and—"

“We have already lost Father. Do not ask me to risk losing you as well.”

Silence followed. “Very well,” Laurent said. “But you know we cannot go on this way forever.”

“More’s the pity,” Auguste replied.

“You have my word that I will behave myself. Now you may as well go; I am sure you have more important things to do than scold your brother.”

“Now, now. Nothing could be more important to me than scolding you.”

An undignified snort. “Oh, go start a war or something, we’re done here.”

Auguste laughed. “Be safe, Laurent.”

“And you,” he replied.

Footsteps faded in the direction of the western gate. Damen let out a breath and was turning to leave when Laurent stepped out from behind the trellis.

He stopped short at the sight of Damen and sighed. “I suppose you heard all of that.”

“I heard a little.”

“I should not trouble him about it. I know he has a great many other things with which to concern himself, and so long as I am ‘safe,’ I should be content. But it is frustrating, all the same.”

“I understand.” Damen would have chafed against such a confinement, and it was easy to see how tiresome it was for Laurent. Even if he did not dedicate himself to outdoor pursuits with the same enthusiasm as Damen, having the option removed entirely could not have been pleasant.

Laurent sighed and sat down on a bench nearby. Damen took it as an invitation and sat in the chair opposite. It was nothing compared to the liberty of a horseback ride through the forest, but at least they could enjoy the warmth of the sun.

“How is it, between you and your brother?” Laurent asked.

“Much as it is between you and yours, I imagine.”

“Is it? I wonder.”

“Why should it not be? Kastor and I are only a little closer in age than you and Auguste, after all, and you and I are both the younger brothers, long unlooked-for. Why should it be any different at all?”

Laurent crossed one leg over the other and sat back, regarding Damen calmly. He made the simple garden bench seem a throne. “It is different, because when I was born, very little changed for Auguste. He was no longer the only prince, but he remained our father’s heir. He lost nothing, though he gained the annoyance of a tagalong child constantly at his heels. But Kastor...for nine years he had been raised to inherit the throne. No one believed that Queen Egeria could carry a child to term, so Kastor was given all the training of a crown prince—all the lessons and liberties, every expectation of what was to come. The day you gave your first cry was the day he lost everything.”

“That is not so,” Damen argued. “Kastor said that he was relieved when I was born, that he never wanted the responsibility of being king. He said he’d be much happier playing the dissolute prince while I did all of the work.”

Laurent examined his nails. “And was that before, or after he ran you through with a sword?”

“That was an accident. I was a boy who thought I could play as a man, and I paid for my arrogance.”

“You told me yourself that Kastor chose to spar with true-steel swords. You paid, yes, but you learned the wrong lesson. Kastor is as dangerous to you as this assassin is to me.”

Damen rose from the bench. “Kastor is my brother,” he snapped. “And if you were anyone but a prince of Vere, I would call you out for that insult.”

Laurent’s eyes flashed suddenly, and he looked angry for the first time. “Willful blindness will not change the truth, it will only get you killed. If you cannot allow even the possibility that I am right—”

“Go to hell,” Damen said crisply. He turned on his heel and walked away without another word.

 

Damen spent the ensuing two days nursing a justified grudge against Laurent. How dare he make such insinuations about Kastor? What right did he have to suppose that he knew Damen’s brother better than Damen himself?

He took long rides each day through the nearby Veretian countryside, first with a few members of his guard and then without. After all, once he left the palace he could guarantee that he would not stumble upon Laurent.

On the third morning, he took breakfast in his rooms, alone. He was restless, filled with a jittering energy that riding would not serve to dispel. The day had dawned damp and chilly, with a drizzle that turned to a heavy, driving rain and left the outdoor practice yards a sea of mud. Loath to give up on the idea entirely, Damen asked a servant to show him to the royal practice room.

He had used the room once or twice before, with Auguste during that long-ago summer, but it had never been his preferred place to spar. Still, as a space for exercise, it served nicely, and it was dry.

The practice room was deep underneath the castle, not far from the royal baths. The wooden floors were covered in a thick layer of sawdust, to cushion a prince’s fall, and the racks of weapons on the wall were great in both quality and variety.

But Damen was not given to showy swordsmanship. He selected a plain, two-handed broadsword and set to practicing his form. He swung at a stuffed dummy in a patterned series of blows, over and over again until his muscles burned with the effort. It was not as good as a true sparring match, but unless Auguste found out that he was here and came down to join him...

A breath of air brushed the back of his neck, like a door had opened somewhere behind him. Damen turned and found Laurent standing in the doorway.

He bowed his head in greeting, still catching his breath. Did Laurent mean to apologize for their last conversation?

Instead, Laurent crossed to the rack of practice weapons on the wall and lifted down a lighter two-handed sword. “May I?” he asked.

Damen hesitated. He had six inches on Laurent and was probably half again his weight, but if Laurent wanted a thrashing, Damen was pleased enough to oblige. “As you like.”

Laurent stepped out into the room, the sword held easily at guard. He shook his hair back from his face and nodded to Damen.

Damen nodded back, and in the same breath, swung back for an overhand strike.

Laurent stepped out of range of his first blow, then caught the second on his own sword. The blunted metal rang loudly in the stuffy room, and Damen had to adjust his grip when he realized that Laurent was a hair’s-breath from knocking his sword away.

Something of his surprise must have shown in his face, because Laurent’s answering smile was feral, a baring of teeth. “Did you forget whose brother I am?”

So it was to be that sort of fight as well, with words as well as swords. It was no accident that Laurent’s words recalled their last conversation and its abrupt ending.

In truth, Damen nearly had forgotten that Laurent was Auguste’s brother; at least, he assumed that this bookish, strategy-minded young man was the inverse of Auguste, strong where Auguste faltered, and weak where Auguste excelled. He would not make that mistake again.

Instead of rising to Laurent’s taunt, he disengaged, stepping back to circle Laurent with a new wariness. They traded strikes for a few moments. Laurent tried to press an attack, and Damen gave two steps before countering with a full-strength blow that nearly wrenched the sword from Laurent’s grip—a warning.

But his strength and reach did not buy him as much advantage as he expected. Laurent rarely blocked a blow head-on, preferring to avoid Damen’s strikes entirely, or knock them aside with a subtle angling of his blade. It was elegant sword-work, and Damen did not think it would serve him quite so well in a pitched battle—but in a duel, it was maddening, and beautiful to watch. Damen could see in Laurent’s swordplay all the minute calculations of his mind, the intensity he brought to bear on every problem. It was masterful.

Damen’s sword and concentration wavered as the realization struck him like a splash of cold water. It was not simply Laurent’s outward beauty that he admired, but the mind beneath it. Clever and cutting by turns, immersed in the intrigue of the court and yet above it.

This wasn’t just a matter of a distracting face after all. This was—

He snapped back to focus and found himself ducking away gracelessly as Laurent’s blow nearly caught him at the hip. He could consider the meaning of this later; for now, he had to concentrate on the duel or Laurent was going to embarrass him.

Their blades clashed again, and then they parted, circling each other in search of an opening. “You’re good,” Damen said.

“I’m better mounted,” Laurent replied, apparently oblivious to the double meaning of his words. “On horseback, the advantage of height becomes relative.”

“Yes, but we seem to be lacking horses.”

“An unfortunate oversight. Next time I will bring mine in through the baths.” While he was still speaking, Laurent lunged at him, a low strike that might have clipped Damen’s knee if he had not seen the shift in Laurent’s footing. Damen blocked the blow, leaving Laurent off-balance with his sword too low to recover in time.

Damen swung upward. He turned his grip so the flat of the blade hit Laurent’s arm, a stinging smack instead of a hard-edged bruise. But the blow was enough to upset Laurent’s balance and send him stumbling back, the sword falling from numbed fingertips.

Deja-vu struck Damen hard; he had beaten Auguste the same way, once. “You leaned too far into the strike,” he said. “You couldn’t correct in time.”

“I’m aware,” Laurent muttered. He shook the numbness out of his arm and retrieved his sword. “Again?”

“You’ll be black a blue for a week,” Damen warned.

“Am I? You seem very confident that you’ll win again.”

He was. Laurent was competent and certainly capable of surprising him, but Damen had years of experience, in true battles, and would eventually come out on top of any contest between them.

“A silver piece on Prince Laurent,” a voice called out. Damen glanced one side and found that they had drawn an audience. A few off-duty guards and soldiers had taken up position on the edges of the room. Vannes leaned against the wall in a silk wrap, clearly on her way to the baths. She was the one who had spoken.

“Too rich for my pay,” one of the soldiers said.

“Not for me,” someone else said. “I’ll take the bet.”

Instead of speaking, Laurent went on the attack, with a flurry of quick strikes and feints that drove Damen back a step. But as Laurent closed the gap between them, Damen sidestepped and pressed a new attack.

It didn’t take as long this time. Damen knew what to expect from Laurent, and now that he was aware of Laurent’s skill, he no longer felt the need to treat him gently.

This time, when Laurent finally faltered, Damen’s blow was enough to knock him down. Laurent sprawled on the floor, winded, and Damen found himself smiling.

“Do you remember what you once told me?” Damen teased, forgetting their audience. “You sat on the fence outside and said Vere will always beat Akielos. Perhaps you should take that back.”

The light in Laurent’s eyes was furious now. He climbed to his feet, shaking the sawdust from his hair, and picked up his sword.

In response, Damen lowered his. “Enough.”

“Once more.”

“Not like this. You’re angry.”

“Are you frightened?”

Frightened for Laurent, suddenly, but not of him. Not here in the palace, with a pair of blunted blades. Damen had never seen this anger in Laurent before, and he wondered where it had taken root. Surely he had lost sparring matches before—Auguste had ever been lenient with Laurent, even gentle, but Laurent would never have learned so much if Auguste had let him win.

No, there was some other reason for the current of rage that Damen had uncovered. But he would not indulge it.

Damen let his sword fall to the floor. He stood empty-handed in front of Laurent. “I am done fighting now. But you may continue, if you wish.”

It was a bluff, and not one that he was fully confident of winning. The force behind even a blunted blade could be enough to break bone, if it hit well, and it would be Damen’s sword arm that would take the blow.

Laurent’s grip tightened on the sword, knuckles turning white, and Damen braced himself. Then Laurent cast his own sword on the ground and walked away.

Damen watched him go. When the door slammed behind Laurent, Damen bent to retrieve the two abandoned swords. He crossed the practice room to hang them in their places on the wall, aware of the departing guards somewhere behind him.

“Pray do not be offended,” a voice said smoothly. “He has an unfortunate temper—a gift from his mother’s side of the family, I believe.”

Damen jolted. How long had Councilor Reynard been among their audience? Had he been the one who had taken Vannes’ bet? It would explain Laurent’s anger, at least. To be bested in front of his worst enemy...

Yet if Damen had thrown the match, Laurent would only have been angrier. He could practically hear him now, ranting about pity and charity and overbearing Akielon fools. As soon as Reynard had arrived, they were both trapped.

“The prince fights well,” Damen said, aware that his voice was too sharp. “I hope I may never meet him on the battlefield.”

“As do we all,” Reynard replied. He offered a bow to Damen and walked away.

 

This time, Damen did not wait days before confronting Laurent. As soon as he had cleaned up and changed into fresh clothing, he crossed the long hall and knocked at Laurent’s door.

The door opened a hand-span, and no further. “What do you want?” Laurent demanded.

“To talk.”

The guard on the door cleared his throat. “If my lord does not wish to speak to you...”

“Peace, Orlant,” Laurent said. “Damianos is welcome.” His tone was not particularly welcoming, but he opened the door far enough to allow Damen to slip inside.

Laurent closed the door behind him and regarded Damen expectantly. There was still a curl of sawdust caught in his hair. “Well?”

“I am sorry,” Damen said. “If I had known your uncle was watching...”

“What would you have done? Forfeited? Lost on purpose? You do not have it in you to throw a bout.”

Damen wanted to protest, but it was true enough. He did not know how he might pretend losing a duel. “I regret that it happened. And I know it was embarrassing, but what does it matter, truly?”

“You do not understand. He will find a way to use it to his advantage—he always does. I should never have come down to the practice room.”

Laurent’s reaction was all out-of-measure to a lost sparring match. Even if it had embarrassed him, in front of the person he most hated in the court, surely it was not worth losing his temper?

Unless there was more, something that Laurent had not told him. Something involving his uncle...

“Laurent,” Damen said carefully. “How did you know that Nicaise was in danger?”

“I saw him step behind a bower with my uncle. I was in the right place to prevent something terrible from happening.”

“But how did you know?”

Laurent pursed his lips. “How do you think?”

The sinking of Damen’s heart was followed instantly by a burst of overwhelming anger. That someone would lay hands on Laurent, someone he trusted, someone—

Damen.” Laurent’s voice was sharp, as though he had called Damen’s name more than once without answer.

“What?”

“You are imagining something far worse than what happened.” He sighed. “I will have to tell you, I suppose.”

Damen unclenched his hands with some difficulty. “No. Not if it pains you to tell it.”

“I hardly know if it will, as I have never spoken of it before.”

“If it does...”

Laurent flicked his hand in the direction of a chair. “Sit down; it hurts my neck looking up at you. I have to think about where to begin.”

Damen sat down at the chess table, at a loss. Laurent paced the length of the room once, then twice, and Damen waited patiently, aware that Laurent was about to trust him with something that had long weighed on his mind.

Finally, Laurent sat down across from him. He took a slow, deep breath, and he spoke. “When I was young, Uncle Reynard was my favorite. He let me ride horses, not boring ponies, and let me practice my archery with true arrows instead of the blunted ones given to children. I know now why he did all of these things, that every moment was calculated, but I did not know then. He was the one who hired a master to teach me chess, when I was thirteen, and he never denied me when I wanted to play.

“Then one night, when we were alone, he gave me unwatered wine with our game. He said I was old enough, and I felt quite...sophisticated, until it made me lightheaded. And when I had finished the cup, he asked me if I wanted to play a different game, and he put his hand on my leg. I did not understand, at first, until I saw the look in his eyes. I knew then what he wanted, but I had never been drunk before, and my head was spinning too badly to protest. I managed to stand, but I stumbled and knocked over the tray of wine and brandy. Everything went crashing to the floor, loudly enough to bring the servants running. They cleaned up the mess, set the room to rights, and then...they left.”

He shook his head. “Even then, I said nothing, did nothing. I did not even have enough of my wits about me to leave the room. Fortunately, if anything about the experience can be called fortunate, the reminder that half a dozen servants stood just outside the door seemed to frighten my uncle back into his senses. He fell to his knees and began to weep, telling me that I was beautiful, so beautiful and perfect and he couldn’t help himself. If only I hadn’t tempted him, if only I had been good. He said how disappointed my father would be, how disappointed Auguste would be, if he found out how I had behaved. How I had gotten drunk and tempted my poor uncle. That he would be kind and keep my secret—my secret, as though it was my doing—because he loved me and he could not bear to witness my shame. I left his parlor, and I went back to my own rooms. I was sick all night from the wine, but since that day I have never spoken a word about it to anyone.”

“Oh, Laurent.”

He held up a hand. “I did not tell you this to gain your pity. You had guessed enough of it anyway. But you asked how I was able to protect Nicaise, and now you know. There were some few others over the years, boys that I caught him watching, and I was able to arrange things so that they were never alone with him.”

“And he never guessed that you were the one behind it?”

“I was always careful. I used intermediaries and invented distractions. Once I set a small fire in the garden near the bower where he was sitting, and then I took care to be seen far away from the event once it was discovered. When we spoke of Nicaise, you said that it was not his fault and that the blame should fall upon my uncle...but it took me a very long time to understand that. Sometimes it is difficult to remember that I am grown now, that there is nothing he can do to me except sneer and spread rumors. After all, if he were to make any claim against me, it would necessarily reveal his own trespasses, and his standing in the court I not so secure as to weather those charges. We are in a draw, you see.”

Damen frowned. The situation seemed less a draw and more an uneasy peace, ready to erupt into war at the slightest provocation. But there was something else in Laurent’s words, something that made him suddenly uneasy.

“You were thirteen,” Damen said, with dawning horror.

“Yes.”

“Was it while I was here?” Had he missed the signs of Laurent’s ordeal? Could he have prevented it from happening?

“No, but it was not long after you left, and because of it, in a way. Once you were gone, Auguste no longer had an excuse to shirk his duties, and he was required to accompany my father to meetings with the council and foreign diplomats. My brother simply did not have enough time for me, and that lack was what gave my uncle the leverage he needed. It is part of the reason I never told him. Even after I understood that the fault was Reynard’s, I knew also that Auguste would feel terrible for allowing it to happen.”

“I imagine separating Reynard’s head from his shoulders would alleviate the guilt.”

Laurent’s lips thinned into something resembling a smile. “Nevertheless, you may say nothing of this to anyone, of course. And should you be forced to speak with my uncle again, you must not act differently towards him in any way, or he will know that I have told you.”

“You and I have spent a fair amount of time together,” Damen countered. “Doubtless he suspects it anyway.”

“Why would he? If I have not spoken of it in seven years, why should that change now?”

Why, indeed? What made Laurent trust Damen with this, over everyone else in his life? It was a question Damen could not voice, though he longed to know its answer. His realization in the practice room had been overshadowed by what came after, but it remained in the back of Damen’s mind. He respected and admired Laurent a great deal—and yes, there was attraction, too, something beyond the lure of a pretty face.

But did Laurent feel the same way? Could he? Perhaps he was uninterested in sex and courtship altogether. Such feelings were not unheard-of, and with Auguste on the throne, Laurent would not be pressed into fathering children to inherit the crown. He might be content, alone.

The only way to know for certain was to ask. But now was not the time, and this was not the place. Damen rose from his chair. “I am sorry.”

“Sorry?”

“For cornering you into telling the story, for what happened in the practice room today, for the fact that you have been carrying this for so many years. Take your pick.”

Laurent nodded. “You needn’t apologize. But I thank you for listening, all the same.”

“I am always happy to listen, to whatever you have to say. And if you should ever wish to talk about anything, you know where to find me.”

 

You know where to find me. Had that been an inappropriate thing to say? Did Laurent think that Damen meant something else by it?  Damen sprawled on the bed in his quarters and threw an arm over his face. He wanted to storm Councilor Reynard’s rooms; he wanted to weep for the weight that Laurent had carried for so long; he wanted to knock on Laurent’s door and kiss him senseless when he opened it.

Instead of doing any of those things, he fell asleep.

 

* * *

 

The next morning, a servant delivered an invitation from the king to go riding in the royal forest. The weather had cleared, and the sun was bright and warm even though the hour was still early. Damen accepted the king’s invitation and dressed for a ride.

He was prepared to join a riding party of at least a dozen. He was surprised, therefore, to enter the stable and find Auguste alone, just mounting a black gelding. He nodded a greeting to Damen, and the hostler brought Damen’s own horse—a chestnut stallion with a white blaze down his nose—already saddled and bridled.

Damen mounted, and they rode out into the sunlight.

The woods near the palace had a number of paths. Some were wide enough for two or three to ride abreast; others were so narrow that horses had to walk single file, picking their way among vines and roots. The path Auguste chose was a mix of the two, with parts that leveled out into broad lanes and thin tracks that wound up the sides of hills.

They rode in contented quiet for much of the morning, and when the path narrowed, Damen let Auguste take the lead. It was strange to think that he was older now than Auguste had been, when Damen first visited Arles.

The path climbed steadily, finally opening out onto a ridge that overlooked the palace and its grounds. It was a beautiful sight, with the banners snapping in a fresh breeze.

Auguste reined up, and Damen let his horse come to a stop beside him.

“I heard an interesting story from Vannes yesterday,” Auguste said, without looking away from the view in front of them.

“Did you?”

“She said you quite embarrassed Laurent in the practice room, and he threw a tantrum.”

“It wasn’t a tantrum. He had not been prepared to lose in front of an audience—not a noble audience, at least. He apologized to me later that evening.”

“Did he?” Auguste’s surprise was ill-concealed.

The apology hadn’t been given in so many words, but Damen understood that Laurent’s confession afterwards had been its own sort of recompense. “We are at peace, I promise you.”

“Good. If you had been offended, I would have had to force a public apology, and you can imagine how well he would have enjoyed that.”

Damen winced. “I can, and I wish I couldn’t.”

“But I am glad to know you are back on good terms with each other. I remember that I asked you to be kind to him, and I think it has been good for him.”

“It hasn’t been a burden for me, either,” Damen said, a bit too honestly. He hurried to continue, before Auguste could misinterpret his comment. “You must be the one who taught him swordsmanship. I can see your influence in his footwork.”

Auguste laughed. “It had to be me. For any other master, Laurent would not have deigned to leave the library. He was eight, I think, when he started refusing to practice. But when I knocked on his door and asked him to spar, he was as eager as I’d ever seen him. So I carved out what time I could to teach him, and he practiced more, in the hope of impressing me. He didn’t realize that I was already impressed with him,” Auguste said warmly.

How is it, between you and your brother? Damen heard Laurent ask again. He put the question out of his mind. Kastor and Auguste were different people, and what of it? There was more than one way to be a good brother.

They rode back to the palace late in the afternoon, and Auguste was almost immediately engulfed in a crowd of advisors and messengers. It seemed he had not bothered to inform anyone but his immediate guard about his plans for a ride.

The look Auguste cast at Damen was wry and resigned, and Damen found himself grinning in response as he walked away.

Chapter Text

The next evening, Laurent beat Damen handily at chess four times within an hour. After the fifth time, Damen sat back, shaking his head.

“All right, I’ve had enough of losing. Come down to the practice rooms with me.”

“So that you may restore your dignity by knocking me to the ground?”

“You see right through my ruse.”

Laurent hesitated, rolling one of the pawns between his hands. It was the nearest thing to a nervous gesture Damen had seen him make. “I do not know if that is wise,” he said at last.

“You are hesitating because you remember what happened last time. But you needn’t worry. If your uncle appears, I will claim a headache and cry off.”

“Oh, very well, then.” Laurent set down the pawn and rose from his chair. He led Damen out of the room and down the hall, past the staircase that went downstairs.

“Laurent, where are we going?”

The glance Laurent threw over his shoulder was nearly a smile. “You mean this is not how you come to the practice rooms?” He stopped at the very end of the hallway and pressed the petal of a decorative flower molding.

A hidden door swung open, with stairs leading down into the darkness. Damen turned to look at Laurent.

“There are a number of passages for the royal family to move about the palace without being seen. Most of them connect one part of the palace to another, but there are some that extend underground for a great distance, to provide a means of escape in case of attack.”

The passage was pitch-dark; Laurent might at least have brought a lamp to keep Damen from stumbling, but Laurent himself seemed to know every turn and stair. He was careful enough to announce the changes as they came, but Damen still bumped against a wall once or twice, mistaking just how sharply the corridor turned.

“Stop here,” Laurent said in front of him, and Damen came to a halt. He thought they were at the end of the passageway now. At least, it seemed as though he could see a little, like the silhouette of Laurent in front of him. Or perhaps his mind was playing tricks on him, supplying what it expected to see.

There was a quiet click, and a wall in front of them slid aside, revealing an empty cupboard and the sound of falling water—the royal baths. Then Laurent pushed open the cupboard door.

Damen closed his eyes against the sudden brightness, following Laurent out into the warmth of the antechamber.

Someone gasped. Damen opened his eyes and saw one of the councilors—Audin, he thought, though it was somewhat hard to tell without clothes—clutching a towel to himself and looking rapidly back and forth between Damen and Laurent.

“My lord, forgive me,” Audin said.  “I did not see you come in.”

“No,” Laurent replied, “you didn’t.” They walked past Audin and out into the baths themselves.

Damen sighed. “I hope you don’t mind people spreading rumors about the pair of us, because I have a feeling that Laurent and the Akielon were seen leaving a closet in the baths is one that will spread like a fire.”

“Oh dear, what will they imagine we were doing in there?” Laurent said. He led the way down another corridor, which opened up into a vast arena lined with tiers of benches. In the center was a low, cross-shaped pedestal with leather straps hanging loose from the ends.

Damen stopped short, feeling suddenly nauseous. “What is this?”

 “A whipping post. Surely you have those in Akielos, as well?”

“Yes, but not in the center of a theater. It is a punishment, not a spectacle.”

Laurent shrugged. “A public punishment can deter others from the same course.”

“Then do it in the courtyard, in front of the soldiers. But these are box seats, fit for nobles. What do they do? Do they bring their pets here? Do they stroke one another to the sound of the whip? It is perverse.”

“I neither know nor care what the nobles do, as I thought you would know by now. In any case, you may set aside your offense, as this place has not been used since my grandmother’s reign.”

And now that Laurent said so, Damen could see the fine layer of dust that had settled over the whole room. Still uneasy, he turned away from the whipping post in the center of the room and followed Laurent through the far door, and into the barracks beside the practice room.

The practice room itself was nearly empty at this hour, but Damen knew that word would spread quickly once someone noticed their presence. Laurent tied his hair back, to keep it out of his eyes, and considered the rack of weapons on the practice room wall.

Damen was not, in general, a creature of habit, but he knew what worked for him and he saw no reason to change it. He chose the same sword he had used in their last sparring match.

Eventually, Laurent chose a new sword, slightly longer and a little lighter than the one he had used before. Despite their ruse of using the royal passage, half a shift of off-duty guards had appeared at the edge of the room by the time Damen and Laurent stepped out onto the sawdust. They made for a more appealing and cheerful audience than any of the nobles, loudly wagering coin on Laurent’s guile versus Damen’s strength.

They traded easy blows for a few moments, stretching stiff muscles. Laurent was the first to test a true strike, low at Damen’s hips, but he stepped back out of range.

Damen countered with a quick blow at Laurent’s shoulder. Laurent blocked it, and Damen pressed his advantage, bearing down. Instead of giving ground, Laurent stepped in close, tangling their legs and blades together. Damen reeled back a half-step, out of surprise as much as anything else. Laurent angled his shoulder against Damen’s chest and shoved.

He overbalanced, falling back hard onto the sawdust. But their swords were still hooked together, and Laurent fell with him, landing on top of him with enough force to drive the breath from Damen’s body.

Ha.” Laurent’s voice was bright and pleased; the grin on his face seemed to light him from the inside.

Damen was struck by an urge to kiss him, one that he controlled with difficulty. They had an audience, after all—and audience or no, he was not certain that Laurent would welcome the gesture.

Laurent rolled off of him, disentangling their swords and rising to his feet. He passed Damen’s sword back to him as he stood. Damen felt scraps of sawdust make their way down inside the collar of his shirt.

The guards watching them were still exchanging coins, cheering or groaning in equal measure, and Laurent’s smirk was as appealing as it was irritating.

Damen brought his sword up to guard. “Yes, all right. Once more? Or are you satisfied, now that you have your victory?”

“As you like,” Laurent said. He was still smiling, just faintly, as he lifted his sword. Damen pressed his advantage, coming in with a quick jab at Laurent’s midsection. Laurent scrambled aside.

For two minutes, then five, they went back and forth across the practice room, neither able to gain a lasting advantage. In only a few bouts, Laurent had learned enough of Damen’s style to anticipate him, lessening the advantage granted by Damen’s size and reach.

Damen feinted left. Laurent saw the feint coming and dodged, but not quite in time. The tip of Damen’s sword struck a glancing blow to his arm, and Laurent jerked back, his eyes wide.

A thin line of red appeared at his shoulder, in the wake of the blade.

Damen looked down at his sword in shock. Only now did he see the light glinting off the edge—an edge that was no longer dull and blunted but perfectly, viciously sharp.

The sword clattered to the floor. “Laurent!” But even as Damen stepped towards him, the half-dozen guards watching their bout surrounded him, pinning his arms behind his back.

“Akielon traitor!”

“You dare—”

“Summon the King!”

Damen did not resist, so it was easy for them to drive him down to his knees. He wondered, idly, if they were going to take up the very sword he had dropped and use it to dispense their justice.

Then Laurent spoke. “Unhand him.”

“My lord, he wounded you,” a guardswoman said.

“Yes. And look at him, he’s horrified. This was an accident, nothing more.”

“You do not know that, my lord.”

Laurent rolled his eyes. “Damianos pretends not to hold back when we fight, but he had half a dozen chances to make a killing blow today, and he turned his blade every time. If he wanted me dead, I would be.”

“It is a judgment for the king to make,” she said stubbornly.

Laurent glanced at Damen, clearly resigning himself to a spectacle. “Very well, then. You may escort him to my brother, unbound, and Auguste will put an end to this debacle.”

The guards took a step back and allowed Damen to rise. As soon as he gained his feet, he was instantly struck by a new horror. “Laurent, wait. If it was sharpened, it could have been poisoned, too. You have to send for a physician—”

“It wasn’t poisoned. The person who did this wanted you to be blamed, and poison is a particularly Veretian trick. Not at all in keeping with the brute savagery of an Akielon.”

Laurent led the unhappy procession up several flights of stairs, none of them secret, and many of them occupied by servants and nobles going about their business. Damen could only imagine the stories that would spread.

They approached Auguste’s offices and waited for the guard at the door to announce them before they crowded into the room. Auguste looked up from a scroll of parchment. He saw Damen, surrounded by guards, and then Laurent, looking rather solitary beside them. His eyes flicked to the cut near Laurent’s shoulder. “What happened?” His voice was clipped and sharp.

Laurent, by contrast, sounded almost lazy. “Someone sharpened Damen’s sparring blade. They meant to have him kill me in the midst of a practice bout.”

“Oh?”

“Brilliant, isn’t it? A prince murdered in the palace, and a rival prince caught holding the blade. A war begun with a whetstone.”

Auguste took a slow breath, as though weighing every course of action. He flicked a hand towards the guards. “You are dismissed,” he said. “Thank you for bringing this matter to my attention.”

The guards released Damen with considerable reluctance, but they would not deny or even delay an order from their king. They bowed and left the room, leaving Laurent and Damen standing before Auguste’s desk.

As soon as the door closed behind the guards, Laurent broke the silence. “You cannot punish Damianos for this. It would bring up old strife with Akielos—on top of which, he is entirely innocent.”

Auguste looked at Laurent for a moment and then, inexplicably, smiled. “You always did think I was a bit stupid,” he said fondly.

Laurent blinked. “I—”

“No, you needn’t deny it. I will admit you have the advantage over me in chess and court intrigue, but I am certainly capable of drawing a conclusion from the facts arranged before me. I am not, for example, going to charge Damen with treason.”

Damen could see a tiny fraction of the tension fade out of Laurent’s posture.

“That is...good to hear,” Laurent said.

“Though I believe you’re meant to pull the blow when sparring, Damen.”

He winced. “I know. I swear I never intended to hut him.”

“I fell for his feint,” Laurent said. “Or I nearly did, anyway. It was my fault. You did tell me I should practice more, brother.”

“More, or perhaps less,” Auguste muttered. He turned his attention to Damen. “You use the same sword when you practice?”

“Whenever I used the practice room, yes.”

“How many people might have known that?”

Damen considered the question and shook his head. “There were always others in the practice rooms—your guards, my guards, courtiers and nobles. Vannes, once, and a couple of councilors. A few of them have even sparred with me. And I use the same kind of sword when I spar in the practice fields outside, as well. Anyone might have noticed the blades I favor.”

It was not a helpful answer, and Damen knew it. Auguste sighed. “I wouldn’t expect you to tell one noble from another. I can’t even tell them apart most days.” He turned to Laurent. “What am I to do? Is nowhere safe for you, little brother?”

“I suppose I am to be forbidden the practice room as well,” Laurent said, with a twist of his lips.

“Is that all that concerns you? This is the fifth attempt, at least. And now they have breached the walls of the palace.” Auguste rose from his chair. “I am going to speak to the captain of the guard. In the meantime, Laurent, a pair of guards will accompany you whenever you leave your rooms.”

“That will lead to a great many questions.”

“Yes. If only it would lead us to answers, as well.” Auguste swept out of the room, leaving Damen and Laurent alone.

“My world grows ever smaller,” Laurent said bitterly. “First, to be confined to Arles, then to the palace, and now, to my rooms.”

“Your brother is right,” Damen snapped, surprising them both. “Do you even understand how close you came to death today? If you had fallen for the feint, you would have ducked into the blow instead of away. It would have gone across your throat.”

“Just as well I saw it coming, then. You didn’t shift your weight enough to make me believe the feint. You should work on that.”

Laurent.” Damen’s voice was much louder than he meant it to be, echoing off the room’s high ceiling.

Laurent looked at him, expectantly.

“You’re still bleeding,” was all he could say.

Laurent looked down. The torn sleeve of his shirt had turned red around the edges of the cut, and the stain was spreading slowly. “Yes,” he said calmly. “Does it always hurt like that?”

“Usually. It’s when it doesn’t hurt that you worry.”

“I see.”

“You’ll need to have it sewn up.”

“And inform the entire palace of this incident?”

“Laurent, half a shift of guards saw it happen, and two dozen servants and messengers saw them march me into this room. The entire palace is going to learn of it anyway.”

Laurent’s expression turned even more displeased, but he did not contest the point. Instead, he turned around and walked back to the ornate double doors of the room. He reached out and shoved them open, wincing as the movement pulled at his wounded arm. He pretended not to notice when the two guards at the door fell into step behind him.

They drew much less attention this time, as Damen was not being manhandled through the halls. A few passing nobles did give gauging looks to the guards escorting them, as though deciding whether this was some new style that they would be expected to adopt.

The physician’s room was neat and very clean, with a sparseness that came as a relief after weeks of overwhelming Veretian ornamentation. The physician himself was wrapping the knee of some noble’s pet and advising less-adventurous play for several weeks.

He looked up when Damen and Laurent entered, but instead of immediately addressing the prince he continued speaking to the pet. She nodded, blushing, and then slipped off of the examination table to leave the room.

“What brings you here, my lord?” the physician asked.

“There was a small accident, Paschal,” Laurent said. “Prince Damianos insists that the cut be dressed.”

Damen rolled his eyes, but the physician ushered Laurent to a cushioned chair in the center of the room. A servant appeared, out of seemingly nowhere, and knelt down to unknot the laces that closed Laurent’s sleeve at the wrist.

Laurent gave Damen a pointed look. “You may go,” he said.

Damen nodded sharply and turned to leave, but before he could open the door, Laurent spoke again.

“They won’t thank you for this. I am not popular with the court, by any means, but the logic is simple: When it comes to Veretian versus Akielon, they will always side with Vere.”

“I think I can handle the court’s displeasure,” Damen said.

 

But the displeasure was somewhat greater than he had imagined. There had always been those who snubbed the Akielon delegation, but now the occasional dirty looks and snide comments were matched with more aggressive posturing. Courtiers and pets deliberately clipped him in the halls. Servants spilled wine in his lap and slammed doors in his face. The Veretian and Akielon guards had become so on-edge with one another that Auguste locked the practice room and instituted a palace-wide ban on duels.

Two nights after the incident, Auguste issued an invitation to a court dinner. It was an attempt to remind the nobles that Akielos was an ally, to regain control of the tension before it burst into something truly dangerous. Damen doubted that a dinner would be enough to help, but he could not fault Auguste for the attempt.

When Damen arrived at dinner, a servant led him to the high table, where he was seated—with no subtlety at all—beside Laurent himself.

“How is your arm?” Damen asked, settling into his chair.

“Paschal says it is healing well. He doubts it will even leave much of a scar.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“I fear you and your guards have taken more damage from the incident than I have.”

Damen shook his head. “Your people are defensive of you. I understand it.”

“Still, it cannot be anything but frustrating.”

Damen could not deny that. When the first course was brought out, Laurent was served without difficulty. But when the servant approached Damen, a serving knife slid off of her tray. The knife landed in Damen’s wine-cup and overbalanced it, spilling wine across his plate and into his lap.

“Oh. Terribly sorry, my lord,” the servant simpered, a tight smile on her face. “We should be more careful with sharp things.”

Damen sighed and said nothing, but Laurent was not content to let the matter lie. His voice rang across the table, audible to half the hall.

“If you are incapable of serving this table as you ought, I am certain there are others who will happily take your place. Have one of them bring a new cup and plate for Damianos, and something to sop up the spilled wine.”

The servant paled and retreated back to the kitchens. Damen shook his head. “I thank you, but there is no point in it. It may be better if we left—this tension benefits no one.”

“Leaving now would be as good as a confession of guilt. You have to stay until the matter blows over, or when you become king one day, all of Vere will remember you as ‘the Akielon who stabbed our prince.”

“Or they just need to see you stab me in return.” Damen offered his dinner knife to Laurent, hilt-first. “Surely they would be satisfied if Akielon blood is spilled in answer.”

“They can learn to live with disappointment,” Laurent replied. He plucked the knife from Damen’s hand and began cutting his meat.

Two courses passed without incident or comment. The sweet was being brought out when Laurent spoke again.

“They will put it out of their minds eventually. Some intrigue will surface between an ambassador and a court pet, or some such nonsense, and they will forget that this ever happened.”

But how long would it take—and would Damen have any undamaged clothing left by the time they forgot?

 

It seemed that Laurent was right, however.  After a few days, the servants stopped deliberately spilling things in Damen’s lap and burning his food. The nobles had a longer memory, but they also had less of an ability to harry Damen in the course of his day.

Laurent made a show of continuing to keep company with him, even moving their chess table onto a balcony so that anyone walking in the gardens below would see them together. And after an argument with Auguste that half the palace heard, he also met Damen in the practice room every day to spar—though Damen was careful now to test the blade of any sword he chose.

If anything, the animosity of the court seemed to cause Laurent to warm to him; perhaps he thought that Damen needed defending. Even after the court had largely stopped punishing Damen for the incident in the practice room, Laurent did not move the chess table from its place on the balcony. The evenings had begun to grow warmer with the approach of summer, and the scent of night-blooming flowers was everywhere. Damen had to allow that Vere, despite its fussiness, could be beautiful.

Damen set up his pieces across from Laurent’s. “All this furor over a simple accident. It makes me wonder how the treaty between our countries even holds.”

Laurent shrugged and moved a pawn forward. “The peace will hold because the men on the thrones are determined that it will. As long as they have the strength to command it, their soldiers will keep peace. But the commanders on both sides of the border will always be at each other’s throats. And that, of course, is the jest, because they have more in common with each other than with either of our capitals.”

It had been nearly four weeks since Damen had arrived here. The mourning period was long over, and surely Laurent had realized Damen’s interest by now. They had spent so much of the last weeks together, sparring and dining and challenging each other at chess. Laurent outmatched him in strategy, but Damen ruled him in combat. Their strengths complemented each other perfectly, and Damen did not think it presumptuous to believe that Laurent enjoyed his company.

Damen drew in a breath. “The borders will always be in contention,” he echoed.

“Most likely, yes.”

“Would that change, do you suppose, if an Akielon royal courted a Veretian one?”

Laurent’s eyes widened a fraction. His lips parted in surprise, and then his expression melted into lines of pity. “Oh—Damen, I thought you would have known already. I am sorry, but Auguste...prefers women, only.”

He nearly laughed. “Then it is just as well that I was not speaking of Auguste.”

For the second time in a span of seconds, Laurent’s face slackened in shock. The blank look faded into the slightest of frowns, and Damen girded himself against the answer he knew was coming.

“I do not think that I could,” Laurent said at last. “I could not be a satisfactory partner for you. But I thank you for the compliment.”

Damen nodded. “I understand. I hope that you will still count me as a friend?”

“Always.” Laurent poured himself a cup of water from a silver ewer. He raised the glass to his lips, and when he set it down, he changed the subject, as easily as Damen might steer a sailboat into a fresh breeze.

It seemed, despite court opinion, that Laurent could smooth over awkwardness as deftly as he could create it. Still, Damen excused himself not long after. He needed to lick his wounds in private, if only for a little while. He walked past the door to his quarters and ventured out onto a little-used garden path. It did not have any convenient alcoves for dalliance, and thus was not favored by nobles and their pets. Damen could be certain of being alone with his thoughts.

As soon as he passed out of sight of the balconies above, he drew in a breath and let it out in a heavy sigh. He should have known better than to hope. Laurent was beyond him, untouchable and unreachable. He should as soon court the moon and stars.

And truly, Laurent had done him a favor in declining. If Damen’s father found out that he had offered to pay suit to a Veretian prince... It simply wasn’t done, in Akielos. Of course there had been kings and queens who preferred their own sex, but it was understood that one married to continue the royal line, and took what lovers they liked on the side.

Damen had always known that this was his duty, and he had never expected that he would wish to break with tradition, until these last weeks in Vere. Given choice—and a prince always had a choice—he more often preferred women, anyway. He could not say precisely when this had begun, when the figure seated beside him in the throne room of his imaginings had started wearing Veretian blue, but he needed to bring himself under control, and quickly.

Damen walked the gardens until exhaustion overcame embarrassment, and then he returned to the palace. The hour was late, and the corridors were mostly empty, so few would wonder what had kept him out so long.

When he reached the royal wing, he was surprised to find that his guard had increased. Instead of his typical complement of two, there was a third Akielon soldier standing beside the door.

“Pallas?”

He dipped his head, in the Veretian style. “A message, Exalted.”

“At this hour?”

“It was carried to Vere by ship and brought to the gates by a courier on a winded horse. He says that the message is encoded.”

Damen frowned. Coded missives were for battle plans and lovers’ trysts, and as he was at neither war nor courtship, he could see no reason for such secrecy.

“You had better come inside, then,” he said. The guards opened the door, and Pallas followed Damen into the sitting room.

The lamps had already been lit, and a fire burned low in the hearth, although the evening was still warm. Pallas held out the message, and Damen took it. The wax seal was red, with a simple, nearly crude depiction of a lion on it. There was only one man in Akielos who would send such a message to him, with the seal Damen had clumsily carved in his childhood.

He broke the seal and skimmed the letter within, piecing together the cypher as he went. The message within the letter was short, but its tidings were grave.

Father is getting worse. Come home to Ios as soon as you can.

Kas.

Damen took one slow, deep breath, and then another. Kastor would not have sent a letter like this if their father was expected to recover, which could only mean that he was—

He shied away from the thought, turning instead to the practicalities. He would need to make his excuses to Auguste; a month’s stay was scarcely on the early edge of politeness, and he would need to give a reason for their sudden departure. That meant lying to him. No matter that their countries were at peace, he could not reveal the king’s condition to the Veretians. Auguste would be too honorable to take advantage of the king’s illness, but his court and his generals might not share that forbearance, and the villages near the border would suffer for it.

He would have to invent a reason. Trouble on the Patran border, perhaps, though their treaties with Patras had always held firm. Even if the Veretians discovered that Damen’s reasons were false, the news would take weeks to travel to Arles—and it would be weeks more before Auguste could demand an explanation from him. By then, he would be home in Ios, with his family. He could compose an apology afterward.

Distantly, he heard himself thank Pallas and dismiss him for the night. He carefully fed the letter to the flames in the hearth. Coded or not, it was unwise to leave it intact. He sat down on one of the cushioned chairs and barely felt its softness, gazing unseeing at the hearth until the fire burned down to embers.

He had known for months, somewhere in the back of his mind, that his father’s illness had been growing worse, not better. But he had always believed that a turn would come, believed it so strongly that it seemed impossible even now to admit the truth.

Theomedes was dying.

 

* * *

 

In the morning, at the earliest polite hour, he sent a messenger to request an audience with the king. The messenger swiftly returned to escort him, not to the throne room or a council chamber, but to the royal apartments, where Auguste was breaking his fast.

“Come, sit,” Auguste said, gesturing to the chair opposite his. “Have you eaten?”

“No, Your Majes—”

Damianos.”

“Auguste. No, I haven’t.” Truth be told, nerves had stolen both his sleep and his appetite. But he sat in the offered seat anyway, contenting himself with a cup of sweet fruit juice and an egg tart.

“What is on your mind this morning, my friend?” Auguste asked.

My friend. That was what they were, what they had been for years. And Damen was going to lie to him.

“Auguste, I beg your forgiveness,” he said smoothly. “I have just had a letter from Akielos, and it brings word of movement along the Patran border.”

He looked up, one golden eyebrow raised. “Patras is moving against Akielos?”

“It seems so. The scouts report raids along the border—taking grain and horses, supplies to outfit an army. It is my father’s wish that I return home and lead a battalion to secure the border crossings.”

“Of course. They must have their greatest general to lead them.”

Theomedes’ greatest general was Nikandros, with Makedon a close second. Damen would be a third choice at best. “I hope I do not give offense by leaving so suddenly.”

“Damen, you could never give offense. I would have welcomed your party for a longer stay; I feel as though we have scarcely had a chance to speak since you arrived, and I miss our conversations. Less so our meetings in the practice yard, but you have always been an invaluable friend.”

“As have you,” Damen replied, hoping that Auguste never found out that he had offered to court his younger brother.

“In that spirit, I will have an honor guard escort you to the border.”

“That is kind, but I would not wish you to go to the effort,” Damen said, hoping that his reluctance did not show. An honor guard would take a day or more to gather, and he wanted to be on his way before nightfall.

But Auguste’s smile was amused and a little guilty; it made him look very much like the young prince who had so often sparred with Damen in the practice yard. “To be entirely honest, it is not for your benefit alone. One of our young nobles has been spending time at court, and he requires an escort to Fortaine. If their party joins with yours, you will be enough to put off any raiders who might seek to try you.”

And we will be as slow as walking through quicksand, Damen thought. But Auguste did not know that Theomedes was dying—he did not know that haste was paramount. “How soon will your soldiers be ready to leave?”

“By morning, I should think.” Something of Damen’s disappointment must have shown, because Auguste smiled again. “Come now, you could not hope to leave much sooner than that, anyway. It would reflect poorly on Vere if we allowed you to sneak away like thieves in the night, without at least one final banquet to farewell you.”

“You are right, of course,” Damen said, making his peace with the lost time. “I expect we both have much to do before the day ends, so I will take my leave.”

Auguste nodded. “I will see you at dinner. If you will send my steward in, when you go? We suddenly have a great deal to discuss.”

 

The farewell banquet that night was almost understated by Veretian standards—only six courses, and an hour or two of entertainment. After all, many of them had to rise early in the morning for the journey to come.

Auguste made a simple, heartfelt speech at the start of the meal, one that left Damen truly sorry that he had to leave so soon. Laurent, seated at Damen’s other side, mercifully gave no sign that he even recalled their conversation from the previous night, which was a relief. Damen was still embarrassed by it, but at least Laurent was not going to bring the matter up before the entire court.

“My brother tells me there is unrest on your borders?” Laurent said.

“Yes. Not the border with Vere, fortunately, but with Patras.”

“I see. I would have thought that your father’s generals could have addressed the situation. Makedon, perhaps, or the one from Delpha—what is his name?”

“Nikandros,” Damen supplied.

“Yes. They are likely both a great deal closer to Patras than you are, at the moment. I wonder that your father would not send them.”

“They may be otherwise occupied. At any rate, I am not given to questioning my father’s orders,” Damen said shortly. His story had been hastily constructed; it was little wonder that someone as clever as Laurent would find it strange. All he had to do was finish this meal, and they could leave at sunrise.

“I hope,” Laurent began, and then stopped. “I hope your leaving is not in any way due to our conversation last night. I certainly bear you no ill will for it, and I hope that you do not resent my refusal.”

“No—Laurent, no, of course not. This is nothing to do with that, I promise you.”

“I thought not. But I did not wish for us to part with any misunderstanding.” He rose from the table and dipped his head in a bow. “Safe travels, Damianos. I am sure that this will not be our last meeting.”

 

The morning dawned cool and gray, threatening the same heavy rain that had first driven Damen to the indoor practice room two weeks before. The Akielons paid no attention to the rain, while the Veretians, as ever, seemed eager to cover themselves from head to foot. Most wore oilskin cloaks with deep hoods over their riding leathers, which turned them into anonymous shadows behind the curtain of rain.

There were a dozen of them, perfectly matching the Akielon guard. Twenty-four soldiers, a physician, and of course the noble to be escorted, a young man named Aimeric.

The main courtyard was a scramble of final preparations, full of the ring of horses’ hooves on the flagstones. A few of the Veretians had reluctantly lowered their hoods to better see to their duties; in passing, Damen recognized Jord and Orlant, who were having a low conversation while they checked the saddle girths.

“I’m not arguing with the orders, I’m just saying I don’t like it,” Jord said quietly. “We’re his personal guard, we shouldn’t be leaving him.”

Orlant grunted. “Not saying I disagree, but you got the same orders I did, royal seal and all, and I’m not looking for a charge of treason today. Anyway, you know the king wouldn’t let anything happen to his brother.”

“I still don’t like it.”

“We’ll be back in two months’ time, easy.” Orlant clapped Jord on the shoulder. “Cheer up, and help me get the rest of the pack-horses ready, eh?”

Damen walked on without pause, but his mind remained on the conversation. Perhaps Auguste was changing Laurent’s guard because the current one hadn’t prevented the attacks. Undoubtedly he had his reasons for the change, and standing in the rain wondering at the motives of the King of Vere was not going to bring Damen home any sooner.

“Akielons, mount up,” he called, and twelve soldiers mounted in easy unison. Across the courtyard, Orlant echoed the call, and they rode out of the gate as one.

Chapter Text

By late afternoon, the rain had let up, and they rode with the sunset warm on their backs. Some of the Veretians removed their cloaks, but most kept them on, to dry the cloth before putting it away.

Damen called a halt just before dark, and the small company began to make camp. It was evident that the Veretians and Akielons had different ways of setting up camp, and both groups seemed to be rushing to set their camp first. Aimeric, the young noble, was understandably of little help, and Jord and Orlant took pity on him and helped him raise his tent.

The competition between the two groups may have been petty, but it also meant that the camp was set and the fire started well before the last of the light had faded.

Then one of the last Veretian soldiers drew back his hood, revealing an unmistakable fall of golden hair.

Several of the Veretians startled and immediately dropped to one knee. Jord swore and looked over at Orlant, who was wearing a very faint, very smug smile.

Damen pushed past them.

“Lazar knows some very interesting jokes,” Laurent said, unclasping his cloak. “I learned two entirely new terms for genitalia this afternoon.”

“What are you doing here?”

“It was my brother’s plan,” Laurent said, which was not an answer. He drew a letter from a pocket of his riding leathers. “I presume he explains the situation here. I am sure he begs your pardon for the intrusion, too, though I tried to dissuade him from it.”

Damen took the letter and slit it open, marring the royal seal. In Auguste’s clear, firm hand, it read:

 

Damianos

By now you are aware that my brother has disguised himself as a member of your company. I apologize for the subterfuge and regret that it was necessary.

You know that the situation is dire: that is why I write this letter in my own hand. Only Laurent, I, and the captain of his guard know of this plan. You once spent a season in Vere, and I hope that you will extend the same courtesy to my brother. I am sure that by harvest-time we will have rooted out whatever corruption has taken hold in Arles, and it will be safe for Laurent to return.

Please look after him, and encourage him to use his tableware properly.

I hope you will forgive me, my friend.

Auguste I

 

“He says to remind you not to stab anyone with your cutlery,” Damen said, folding the letter again.

“Of course he does.”

“Is there anything else I should know?”

“Oh—yes.” Laurent gestured to one of the Veretians, a rather short one who had also not removed his cloak. “I brought Nicaise.”

Damen sighed. “I did think he was somewhat small to be a soldier.” He couldn’t blame Laurent for that; Arles was hardly a safe place for Nicaise, having already made an enemy of one of the king’s councilors. But there were dangers on the road, too. Nicaise might not thank Laurent for ‘protecting’ him this way.

Around them, the soldiers were returning to work, having weighed the decorum of waiting to be dismissed against the awkwardness of eavesdropping on Damen and Laurent’s argument. Damen couldn’t blame them. He would avoid the conversation too, if he could.

“Did you even want to come?” he asked.

“My desires were not consulted. My brother commanded it, and no argument would sway him. No, I did not want to come.”

The answer shouldn’t have stung, but it did. Damen knew it was not meant as a personal affront, but he had to bite back the urge to defend his homeland. “I understand,” he said instead. “Ios will not be much like Arles, but if your brother is right, it may only be a few weeks before you are able to return.”

Laurent was silent for a moment. “I beg your pardon, I did not mean any insult to your home. It is only that my place is in Arles, fending off the worst of the gilded serpents that make up the court. I fear what I will find when I return.”

“Oh, Vannes will take them all in hand, I expect.”

“If anyone could do so, it would be her,” Laurent admitted.

“Your brother’s letter says that only Orlant knew that you would be joining us.”

“Yes. Auguste told him only this morning, so there would be no chance for a rumor to spread. It will be another day at least before any of the nobles notice my absence—and even then, they will probably only remark at how quiet the gardens are, how peaceful the mealtimes.”

Damen wondered how long Auguste could keep Laurent’s absence a secret. He doubted it would last more than two days, though not for lack of trying. And when they found out that he had sent Laurent off with the Akielon who ‘attacked’ him in the practice room...

There was no point in worrying. They had all ridden a long way, and even the soldiers were tired and hungry.

“Well, it seems we are both stuck on this course, whether we intended it or not,” Damen said.

“Yes, it does.”

A thought struck Damen. “Where is your tent?”

Laurent gestured to the Veretian half of the camp, where low, individual tents were set in a half-circle. “I had to outfit myself as a soldier, or the ruse would never have worked. I could not very well add another horse to our entourage, simply to carry the trappings of a prince. Nicaise has a similar tent.”

Damen could hardly imagine that the Veretians would like that—their own prince, sleeping like a common soldier, while Damen slept in relative opulence. His tent, at least, was tall enough to stand in, and there was a low, folding table where one could eat, or lay out a map.

He cleared his throat. “As we are yet in Vere, and you are the prince, if you wish to trade with me...”

Laurent raised an eyebrow. “I see. You think me too soft to camp like a common soldier.”

“I— that is not— damn it, Laurent, can you not accept a courtesy in the spirit it was offered?”

“There is no need. I will be perfectly at home in the tent I brought.”

“If you say so.”

“I do. And lest you think I am being altruistic, know that there is some self-interest involved. After all, if the assassin has tracked us here, he will likely set fire to the largest tent first.”

When the watch was set and the fire banked, Damen retired to his tent. Now he would have to return to Akielos with a Veretian prince in tow, one who had only two days ago declined Damen’s offer of courtship. That would be awkward enough, but Damen also knew that there would be no hiding the true reason for his return, once they reached Akielos. Even if Theomedes should recover, Laurent would surely notice that Damen was not leaving to fight on the Patran border.

And what his father would say, when they arrived...well, there was no hope for it now. He could not send a messenger ahead of them, for fear that it might be intercepted and put Laurent in danger again. To arrive at the gates of Ios escorting a foreign prince would throw the entire palace into an uproar. Oh, certainly they had hosted foreign dignitaries before, but some accommodation would have to be made. They would need to raise a canopy over the balcony in the guest quarters, to begin. Laurent was certainly not accustomed to the heat of Akielos, and his complexion implied only a passing familiarity with the sun.

As Damen drifted into sleep, he hoped Laurent had had the foresight to pack lighter clothing. If he wore those heavy velvets in an Akielon summer, he’d faint. Or perhaps he would consent to where a chiton—but the thought of that was perilously close to a fantasy.

 

The next few days of the journey continued very much like the first. Laurent’s presence caused the competition between the Veretians and Akielons to increase, since now they were both showing off for their princes. But by unspoken agreement, Damen and Laurent ignored the competition, and soon enough the soldiers turned to cooperation instead.

Aimeric was not enjoying himself, that much was plain, but he complained less than other nobles that Damen had known. He even gamely stepped up when a few of the soldiers offered to teach him swordplay.

After a few evenings spent falling in the dirt, Aimeric pronounced the whole exercise hopeless.

“Maybe...maybe a bow would work better?” he asked. “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”

One of the Veretians went back to his tent and produced a tall yew bow and a quiver of arrows.

Aimeric struggled to bend the bow enough that he could string it, and finally Jord took pity on him and strung it himself. Aimeric gave him a shy smile, then straightened up and let three arrows fly, one after the other, directly into the heart of a dead tree beyond the edge of camp.

“Oh, that is much better,” he said smugly. “Now, who thinks they can outshoot me?”

Even though they all knew that Aimeric’s difficulty with the bow had been a feint, the soldiers still seemed convinced that they could match him. By the end of the evening, he had collected half a dozen forfeits from the soldiers he’d defeated.

Then Laurent held out his hand. “May I try?”

Aimeric looked as though he might like to refuse, but he nodded instead. After all, Laurent was the prince, and a request from him was not to be denied.

It took three rounds to determine the winner. Their first shoot, from fifty paces, was declared dead even, and even at eighty paces, they were too well-matched to decide in favor of either one of them.

At a hundred paces, Aimeric’s first shot clipped the edge of the target tree and fell to the ground. His remaining four were closely grouped, but Laurent laid five shots down the bole of the tree in a line, each a perfect handspan apart.

Laurent unstrung the bow, handed it back to Aimeric, and walked away. He didn’t see the look on Aimeric’s face as he went.

Later, Damen approached Laurent where he sat by the fire, reading. He seemed to have fit at least three different books in his pack.

“I don’t believe you made a friend with that display,” Damen said lightly.

“I wasn’t trying to. I simply wanted to put a stop to his burgeoning arrogance before it could take root.”

“How? By demonstrating your own?”

“He needed to be set down. It was expedient.”

“I suppose. But don’t be surprised if he spits in your stew one night,” Damen warned.

“I expect I will survive,” Laurent replied, and he went back to his reading.

 

* * *

 

The weather proved fine enough for riding, though the mornings were cooler than the Akielon company might have preferred. Still, not one of Damen’s soldiers would have complained in front of the Veretians, not for all the coin in Ios.

They were a week into their journey, traveling along a trade route a few leagues south of the forested foothills that led north into Vask. The morning’s heavy mist was just beginning to burn off when Laurent’s horse twitched one ear and shied. Laurent brought her under control immediately, but he frowned.

Damen saw the unease in Laurent’s expression. Veretian horses did not shy without reason. Damen’s hand went to the hilt of his sword, and around him he heard the rest of their company do the same.

From somewhere to the north came a distant sound, difficult to place. But a heartbeat later came the familiar soft hiss of a volley of arrows. Riders surged around Damen and Laurent, raising shields and drawing swords as the first arrows fell among them. Horses screamed, men shouted—and then a ragged band of riders charged out of the mist.

Damen’s sword was in his hand, and he rode hard to meet the lead rider as he approached. Their blades met with a jarring impact, but strength and momentum were on Damen’s side. The enemy’s sword fell from his hand, and Damen cut him down before wheeling back to choose the next target.

It seemed that half or more of the enemy riders were female. That, and the furs that they wore, suggested that they were Vaskian. But why would they attack travelers who were clearly not part of a trading caravan?

Such questions would have to be considered later, presuming that they survived the next few moments. The attackers seemed to have similar numbers to the Veretians and Akielons, but they lacked the same discipline. There was no line to break, just a scrum of individual battles. Damen took down a second rider and turned, seeking a third.

The mist was fading now, and Damen saw the sun glint off of a shield, far to one side. He risked a glance back and saw that one rider had circled back to the south, approaching the battle from behind.

She was riding hard, and directly towards Laurent.

Laurent, who was turned away, engaging another attacker. Damen was too far away to reach her in time, and the fighting was too thick to risk a throwing knife. He could not even shout to draw Laurent’s attention; the noise of battle was too great.

There was nothing he could do, but he turned his horse anyway, urging his winded mount back into a gallop.

The whole scope of the battle narrowed to one rider. The clash of swords faded until it seemed he could hear each separate hoofbeat. Damen’s throat rasped painfully, and he realized he had been shouting—but in vain. She was nearly upon Laurent now, and all Damen had done was give himself a better view of the inevitable.

Then Nicaise appeared at the edge of the fighting, his reins clutched in one hand and a dagger in the other. He lashed out with the blade and drew a long, shallow cut across the rider’s leg. She faltered in her pursuit, turning to face the new danger, and Damen saw Nicaise’s eyes widen in sudden horror as the rider raised her sword to cut him down.

Before she could bring down her blade, Damen cut her down.

Laurent heard the noise and turned to block a blow that did not come. He looked at the dead attacker, then at Damen, and nodded once before turning back into the fray.

But the battle was falling to pieces even as they watched. The attackers seemed to realize that their plan had failed, and at the sound of a sharp whistle they pulled back and turned away, riding hard for the cover of the woods.

Only a handful of the enemy remained, but it would not do to allow them to escape and spread the news of their location. Damen cast his eyes over their party and spied Pallas on an uninjured horse.

“Pallas, after them!” he called out. He saw Pallas lean low over his horse’s neck and nudge her into a gallop, riding hard into the woods after the fleeing riders.

“Lazar, with Pallas,” he heard Laurent add, and a second rider took off in Pallas’ wake.

Then there was nothing to do but catch their breath and assess the damage. Paschal, the physician, was already tending to the injured. In addition to the wounded men, they had lost two horses at least, but three of the attackers’ horses were milling around the abandoned battlefield, unhurt and riderless.

Damen sought out Laurent through the confusion. They would have to talk about the attack, about their next movements, about fortifying the camp and finding a safe place to rest for the night. He was glad, suddenly, that Laurent was with him. If Damen had been alone, commanding a mixed company of Akielons and Veretians, he could only trust that half of them would take his orders without protest.

When Damen found Laurent, he was on foot, speaking to Nicaise in a low voice. He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, but Nicaise shook him off and walked away. Laurent frowned after him as Damen approached. His riding leathers were darkened, stained with a red so deep it was nearly black.

Damen swore and covered the last paces between them at a run. “Laurent—are you hurt?”

He looked up at Damen and shook his head. “This isn’t my blood. It’s Orlant’s.”

Orlant. “Is he—?”

“He took the arrows that were meant for me. Three of them,” Laurent said, his voice like ice.

Damen knew that reaction well. Anger was easier than grief, at the start. “It is what he was trained to do.” Damen’s soldiers had surrounded him in the first moments of the battle as well, protecting him with their bodies until they could raise their shields. But none of the arrows had struck home, and after that, the archers could not loose into the melee without risk of hitting their own.

“I know that.”

Laurent’s voice was sharp, and Damen took it for the warning it was, turning instead to practicalities. “We cannot hope to travel further today. As for the wounded, we will know by morning if they will survive, I expect.”

“Paschal will do all that he can.”

“I know. I thought we might move a little further to the south and make camp on the plain. Then we will be out of bow-shot from the edge of the forest, and we will not be taken unaware.”

“Yes, of course,” Laurent said. “I will leave a pair of riders here to await Pallas and Lazar’s return, and we can move south.”

“I saw Nicaise with you. Is he well? And Aimeric?”

“Aimeric shoots well in a contest, but he is no warrior—nor would I expect him to be. He rode straight south, out of range of the battle. He said he knew that he would only be in the way otherwise.”

“Wise enough.” And a safe enough cover for fear, if that was the true reason for his flight.

“And as for Nicaise...who can say? He won’t even speak to me. He said it makes him look weak, coddled. Like a royal pet,” he added wryly.

“Is that true, to a Veretian eye?”

“Oh, perhaps,” Laurent huffed. “But this is not court, and these are not scheming nobles around us. He should know that he is among friends.”

“It seems that your young spy’s suspicion has taken root a little too deeply.” Damen rubbed at an aching muscle in his shoulder. His body was taking note of all the little stresses it had endured in the battle, and it felt like every part of him was making its displeasure known. “Very well. Let me handle Nicaise, if you would.”

Laurent gave him a doubtful look. “You?”

“He has no reason to resent my presence—and everyone knows that Akielons do not coddle.”

Once their camp was established, and Pallas and Lazar safely returned, Damen sought out Nicaise. He was sitting at the edge of the new camp, just beyond the reach of the firelight. His knees were drawn up to his chest, and he was shivering. Damen deliberately shuffled his feet in the drying grass as he approached, but Nicaise still startled when he spoke.

“Are you well?” Damen asked. He unclasped his cloak and draped it over Nicaise’s shoulders before he sat on the ground beside him.

“Laurent sent you,” Nicaise said flatly. “Fuck off.”

“Laurent does not command me.”

That, at least, earned him a glance. Nicaise’s lip curled in a sneer. “If you think that’s true, you’re even stupider than I thought.”

It was a shadow of his expected venom, but that alone was reassuring—it suggested that Nicaise’s fugue would not last. As for the insult itself, Damen let it pass. Protesting would only give credence to the accusation, and Laurent had asked him to see to Nicaise, or almost.

“That may be,” Damen allowed. “Are you hurt?”

“No.”

“Let me see.”

He gave Damen a baleful look, but he uncurled his knees from his chest and held out his arms. His clothes were spattered with mud, but they were whole.

“Good. You’ll be all right.”

Nicaise’s laugh was short and sharp, a fox’s bark.

“You will, I promise. I shook myself sick after my first battle, and I was nearly sixteen.”

He narrowed his eyes. “You’re lying to make me feel better.”

“No. I still remember every detail. Being surprised by how warm the blood was, how it made the sword hard to grip—slick at first, and sticky after. Turning to look at the man beside me and realizing that he was gone.” Damen sighed. “Most remember two battles with clarity: the first they fought, and the first they commanded. For me, they were one and the same.”

“They gave you a command at fifteen?” Nicaise’s voice was disbelieving, but at least he was listening now.

“Not intentionally. Our general took an arrow in the neck, during the first volley. He was a great friend of my father’s and had served him well for more than twenty years. Without him, the soldiers were thrown into confusion. I had been commanded to keep to the rearguard, where the risk was less, but from my position I could see the line beginning to break in front of me. So I rode out and called them to order. I did not give a thought to decorum or discipline; I only knew that the line had to hold. And we did. It cost us a great deal, but we held it. And afterward, I could not stop the shaking.”

“Does it always happen?” Nicaise asked. He shut his mouth instantly, pressing his lips together as though to keep the questions inside.

“It eases. But it does not go away, and you should not want it to. A soldier who forgets the stakes of battle is a danger to his companions. You fought well today, Nicaise. When we reach Akielos, I will have a sword forged in your honor—every warrior is presented with one, after his first battle.”

“I’m not a warrior. I don’t even know how to use a sword.”

“You can learn, if you like. It’s a useful thing.”

“I don’t deserve it. I barely did anything at all.”

“No? You probably saved Laurent’s life today. At the very least, you saved him a scar.”

Nicaise shook his head. “You would have stopped her.”

“I wasn’t close enough. You slowed her enough that I could get to her. Otherwise...”

The thought of what might have happened did not seem to ease Nicaise’s mind, so Damen forged on.

“I won’t tell you not to think on it. Any soldier lucky enough to survive his first battle remembers it for the rest of his life. Every man in this camp once felt as you do now. Even Laurent.”

“Not Laurent. He’s never been in a battle before, either.”

Damen managed to keep his reaction to a blink, but in his mind he swore a vicious streak. Of course Laurent had never seen battle before today—with peace between Vere and Akielos, when would he have done so? And then he had maneuvered Damen into finding Nicaise, so that Laurent himself could endure his reaction alone. “Stubborn bastard,” he murmured.

Nicaise looked shocked.

“Not you. Laurent,” Damen clarified.

“That’s even worse.”

“I need to go and find him,” he said. “Come back and sit by the fire. Eat something, and sleep.”

“I won’t sleep.”

“You will,” Damen replied gently. “Go, now, and I will look in on Laurent.”

 

But Laurent was not anywhere to be found around the campfire. Nor was he speaking with Paschal, who was keeping watch over the wounded.

Finally, Damen asked one of the soldiers. “He’s in your tent, uh, my lord,” a nervous young Veretian told him. “He said you wouldn’t mind.”

“Thank you,” Damen said. It made sense—his was the only tent large enough for them to discuss what would happen next.

He pushed open the tent-flap to find Laurent sitting on one side of the low table in the tent. A map was already spread across the table’s surface, weighted down with a candlestick at either end.

“Laurent?”

He looked up. “How is Nicaise?”

“How are you?” Damen countered. “Nicaise is not the only one who had never seen battle before.”

“No?”

“He said as much to me, but I don’t know why I should be surprised. You refuse to show weakness, so you sent me to Nicaise and holed yourself up here, where you could fall apart in privacy.”

“Do I look,” Laurent said coldly, “as though I have fallen apart?”

Of course he didn’t, but Damen had come to understand that Laurent’s countenance rarely matched what lay beneath the surface. “You didn’t have to be alone,” was all he said.

“I am accustomed to it. Nicaise needed someone to reassure him, and better that it be you. He might listen to you.”

“Might, indeed.”

“And he is well?”

“He will be,” Damen said, sitting across the low table from Laurent. “So. Vaskian bandits.”

“Perhaps.”

“Perhaps?”

“They were Vaskians, for certain, but not simple bandits. It is the wrong time of year for their raids, to begin, and it is clear enough that we are not traders. What would they think to find worth taking?”

“They may have mistaken us, in the mist.”

“Yes. But their raiders are easily bribed, and well known for it. They loose a warning volley, over the heads of their targets, and give them a chance to submit and avoid a fight. They might have been satisfied with a few of our horses, or a handful of weapons—we might even have offered them you.”

“Excuse me?”

“Any Vaskian would be pleased to make a prisoner of someone like you. You could be held for a great deal of ransom.”

“As could you.”

Laurent shook his head. “They would not consider me worth much, unless they knew who I was. And there, I think, is our problem.”

“You think they knew you were with us.”

“It is possible that they did not, just as it is possible that the arrows in the first volley were concentrated around my position by chance. But I do not think it very likely.”

“Your brother said that no one knew you would be here, save the two of you.” And the unfortunate Orlant.

“Even if the court did not know at first, they surely would have found out after a few days. A fast rider, changing horses at every town, could have outpaced us. A few coins and the promise of a rich reward would be enough to encourage any number of bandit groups to attack. But they would not know our precise course, so—”

“—there would be more than one group poised for attack.”

Laurent nodded. “If you set one ambush, you may as well set two. And once you have set two, it is a simple enough matter to set a third.”

“Your enemy must have a great deal of coin, to set all of this in motion.”

“Coin, or powerful allies. My brother suspects a rival nation. Kempt has never quite forgiven Vere for our mother’s death, and they would certainly have the means for bribery.”

Damen gestured to the map. “You mean for us to change our course, then.”

“Yes. But I feel as though I am playing a chess match in the dark—I cannot see where the other pieces are set. How am I to make a move without knowing what forces are ranged against us?”

“I see. Well, if you were to set an ambush for us, where would you place them?”

Laurent considered for a moment. “There are paths to each of the three main forts: Acquitart, Ravenel, and Fortaine. I would send bandits to wait near the place where those roads diverge. And in addition to our attackers this morning, I would also send a group to lie in wait behind us, in case we should try to turn back.” He placed a copper coin to mark each point where he would set an ambush.

It was a thorough scheme, hemming them in very neatly. “Then our paths to the south and east are almost certainly blocked, and if your suspicions about other attackers are correct, we cannot go west, either.”

“But we might go north,” Laurent finished. “I doubt if our opponent could reach us, once there. These Vaskian raiders were a stroke of genius by our enemy—if we did not know they were bought, we might presume that Vask, too, was closed to us. But we can make our way up into the mountains, and down this pass, which will leave us less than a league from the Akielon border.” He traced the path with a fingertip as he spoke, crossing the inked expanse of a mountain range twice.

“Will it work? What will the Vaskians think of us?”

“That is a question I cannot answer. We might ease our way with gifts, however.”

“Gifts?”

“When our traders travel through the mountains, they bring gifts—bribes—for the clans, to ensure safe passage. Vaskians value strong horses, bolts of good cloth, and food from the lowlands, but we have none to spare. It may be difficult to convince the clans to let us pass through their holdings. Unless...”

Damen waited for him to finish the thought, but Laurent only frowned down at the map, seeming to argue within himself.

“Unless?” he prompted at last.

Laurent looked up. “We have one thing that the Vaskians prize: our men. Vask is matrilineal and matriarchal, with power passing through the female line. Men do not rule or hold command. And the mountain clans near the border are deeply isolated, which means that they are forever in search of new bloodlines. We could provide that, if our soldiers are willing. Mine may balk at the thought—you know how skittish Veretians can be about these things.”

Damen found himself smiling. For all that Laurent could blister paint with his insults, he was capable of discretion, too. He might have said You Akielons aren’t too choosy about bastards, but he hadn’t. “I think my men might be persuaded into this duty,” Damen said delicately.

“Good. We can speak to them about the matter this evening. Separately, I think?”

“No, together. If your men see that mine are not so appalled by the thought, they may consider it, as well.”

“Or it will serve to convince them that Akielons are truly the savages everyone claims.”

“We shall see,” Damen said, rising to his feet. “I will have my soldiers summoned to the fire.”

Laurent called after him. “One more thing.”

He turned back. “Yes?”

“If we take the pass through Vask...it will be a great deal longer than our intended route. I hope that the situation with Patras does not deteriorate while we are here.”

“As do I,” Damen said, but his heart clenched at the lie. He pushed aside the tent-flap and went to call his men.

 

There were twenty of them now. One was dead, four were injured, and Paschal had excused himself to keep watch over the wounded. Aimeric and Nicaise sat to one side, as though unsure if they were included in the general summons.

Laurent began. “I will not waste time with flowery speech: You all fought well today, and you have our thanks. But these raiders were well-prepared and well-informed—more like mercenaries than bandits. There may be more attacks planned along our route. Prince Damianos and I have decided that our best chance is to travel north, through Vask.”

“Where our attackers came from?” Aimeric asked, his voice a little shrill. The soldiers from both parties shot him quelling looks, which he ignored as only a highborn young man could.

“Yes,” Laurent replied calmly. “And won’t they be surprised?”

Aimeric only frowned.

“The Vaskian clans will ask tribute from us, gifts to repay them for passage through their lands. They are a people who value practical gifts, like horses and wool and dyed leather. We have none of these with which to barter, but we can offer them one other thing, that they cannot get in any other wise.” He took a slow breath. “They seek men, to breed warriors.”

A slight, silent recoiling struck the Veretians as one. The Akielon reaction was more muted, and one or two of the men even began to smile as Laurent continued.

“The clans are small and isolated from one another. New bloodlines will keep them strong in the years to come, and I expect they will judge such service to be more than a fair price for safe passage. I know that this is not how things are done in Vere, or even in Akielos, but these are not bastard children and will have no claim upon any other nation. Any child born from such a liaison would be Vaskian in name and birth. They do not know or need their fathers, as the clan raises all children together. Your part would be simple, done in the course of a night. It may be our only way through Vask, and all of the southern routes are closed to us, so you may consider it a service for your country. Furthermore, I am reliably informed that the act itself is enjoyable.”

That got a flicker of laughter out of the men, though many of them still looked uneasy.

Damen took up the explanation. “This is not a duty that we will command of you; we leave it to your will. We will sit at either side of the fire, and when you have made your choice, you may come to us. No one will be censured, whatever they decide. Consider carefully, and come to us when you are ready.”

“Veretians, you have your voting stones,” Laurent said. “You need not even speak, just pass your stone to me. White for yes, black for no.”

Damen and Laurent separated then, each settling on the trampled grass a few paces from the fire. Damen waited while his soldiers filed up to him, one by one, and gave the expected answer. A request from their future king was as a command, and an Akielon soldier would sooner slit his throat than disobey his king.

All the same, Damen wished that some might disagree—it would reassure him that the choices they made were truly their own. But it had taken years to argue that tendency out of Nikandros, and he was Damen’s closest friend. They did not have the luxury of patience tonight.

When all of Damen’s men had given their word, Damen rose and crossed to where Laurent sat.

He was sitting cross-legged on the bare earth, looking down at his hands, and Damen wondered suddenly if Laurent’s men had refused outright. The Akielons alone would likely be enough to serve the Vaskians, but it would foster ill feeling, if the Veretians thought their counterparts were doing easy duty on their backs.

But when Damen stepped closer, he saw that a pile of white stones lay in Laurent’s cupped hands.

Laurent looked up. “Every one of them,” he said, wonder in his voice. “Every one of them agreed. Even Jord, and he does not favor women.”

“Is that so surprising? I know the stigma against bastardry is strong, but your men trust you with their lives.”

“I know that. It is only that I had not been given cause to test that loyalty, before today,” he said quietly.

Damen could guess that the voting stones were not the source of his mood. “Orlant did as he was trained. He knew that one day he might be called to give his life in service to Vere. Every soldier does.”

“Do you think I am a child? Or a fool?” was the tart reply. “I am well aware of how far one’s duty may extend.”

“Did he have family?”

Laurent nodded. “There is pay, of course, when such a thing happens. I will write to them, to ask what more they need, but they may not wish to hear from me.”

“Given time, they will understand.”

“I hope you are right.” Laurent fell silent, looking down at the voting stones, but his thoughts were clearly far afield.

“So we ride for Vask in the morning,” Damen said.

“We do.”

“Very well.” Damen sat down beside Laurent. “Tell me what I need to know.”

 

* * *

 

They settled on dividing their troops—every time they reached the territory of a new clan, half would do their duty by the Vaskians, while the other half would stand guard, incidentally resting themselves from their exertions among the previous clan. Damen and Laurent split their guards so that an equal number of Akielons and Veretians would serve each night.

“What of you?” Damen ventured. “Will you put yourself forward?”

Laurent shrugged, as though the question was not fraught with shame for a Veretian prince. “I will offer, of course, but they will not have me.”

“Why not?” Damen’s voice was too heavy with surprise and indignation, but Laurent mercifully did not remark upon it.

“Because I am not what they prize in their warriors. Too short, too light...it is physical prowess they value, and obvious power, at that. If I were the only one on offer, they would consider it an insult.”

“I see,” Damen said slowly.

“However, if you would sooner not participate, I can present us to the clan leaders as ceremonial participants.”

Damen shook his head. “It isn’t— that is, I don’t mind. If it helps our cause.”

“Of course,” Laurent said, a thin smile on his lips. “Only to help our cause, I am sure.”

Paschal had pronounced the wounded fit to ride, if their pace was slow, so the company mounted up and began the journey north. The captured Vaskian horses proved surefooted and obedient, so none of the soldiers were forced to ride double.

By noon, the ground had begun to climb, and they entered the foothills. There was no easy way to tell when they left Vere and moved into Vaskian territory; they would have to wait until they reached a clan’s holdings or were spotted by an outrider.

They were scarcely above the tree-line when a rider appeared, standing alone on a rocky outcrop above them. A few of the mounts shied in surprise—though notably not the Vaskian horses—but Laurent hailed her calmly, as though he had expected her all along.

Damen’s brief evening lesson in Vaskian culture and the mountain dialects had included some few words. Hello, and thank you, and forgive me, I do not speak Vaskian were nearly all that he had. Laurent’s conversation with the Vaskian woman was almost entirely obscure to him. Damen watched them both carefully for any sign of danger, but Laurent sat easy in the saddle, and once the outrider even laughed at something he said.

When she turned her horse back up the path, she sketched a casual salute.

“Her name is Avella,” Laurent told the company. “She is an outrider for her clan, and their holdings are another two leagues along this path. She will ride ahead, to pass word to the headwoman, and wait for us at the next pass. Tonight, we are guests of the Rock Horse clan.”

The rest of the riding was more pleasant, knowing that they would not be forced to make their camp on bare rock tonight. Damen couldn’t quite silence the persistent voice in the back of his mind, wondering if this was another ambush, so he carried his reins one-handed, his other arm down at his side but very near the hilt of his sword.

Avella was indeed waiting at the next pass, accompanied by three other riders. Avella said something to Laurent, and at his nod, she rode forward with lengths of fine dark cloth. Laurent took one and split the pile in his hands, passing some along to the other riders and the rest to Damen.

“What is this?” Damen asked. The fabric was closely woven, a narrow band about three feet in length.

“Did I not mention? The clans do not trust outsiders to know their place of refuge. We must complete the ride blindfolded.”

Blindfolded. Aimeric, overhearing, began to protest. “What do you mean? We are meant to ride through the mountains blind?”

“We are,” Laurent said sharply. “And if Nicaise has the courtesy not to complain, you might at least show the same courage as a boy of thirteen.”

Aimeric’s mouth snapped closed so quickly that it was a wonder he did not bite his tongue, and Nicaise looked smug even as he took a blindfold and passed the rest along.

Damen turned to Laurent with a sigh. “You might have told me that this was a possibility. I would have liked the chance to acquaint my men with the plan.”

 “Why? They are well trained, are they not? They will not balk at an order given by their commander.”

But it was not an order given by Damen, only passed along from a Vaskian captain. Laurent surely understood the difference and elected to ignore it.

Damen turned to speak to his soldiers, switching from Veretian to Akielon. “The path to their camp is secret. We are to approach blindfolded.”

Pallas frowned, and so did several others, but they each took a cloth from the pile. They would follow his lead, whether or not they approved. Damen sighed to himself and cast one last glance back at Laurent. Laurent nodded fractionally, a reassurance, and then Damen tied the blindfold around his own eyes, blocking out all trace of light.

The ride to the Vaskian camp was not long—a league, perhaps, though the blindfold rendered distances hazy. Their horses followed Avella without hesitation, surefooted on the stone, and by early evening they were brought to a halt. The quality of the echoes had changed, and Damen thought they had come to a more open area.

“You can take it off now,” Laurent said quietly.

Damen untied the knot of the blindfold, trusting that Laurent had no cause to lead him astray. He blinked in the late sunlight, and when his vision cleared he saw that they stood in an open valley. A dais stood to one side, with a woman already seated upon it, and before her spread the whole of the clan’s camp—tents, cookfires, and everywhere men and women working to prepare the camp for the night.

Laurent’s blindfold was already off, his hair straight and perfect, showing no sign it had ever been disarranged. Damen wondered how long he had been sitting here, blindfolded, while Laurent had been perfectly at ease.

“What of our men?”

“The women will remove their blindfolds when they are ready to do so,” Laurent said. “Come, we are called to present ourselves to the clan leader.”

Damen called back an order to his men, who knew even less of Vaskian hospitality than he did himself, and dismounted to walk with Laurent across the camp. They had talked of this the night before: they were to kneel before the headwoman on her dais, and Laurent would speak for both of them.

Even knowing what was to come, it was awkward to remain there on his knees while the conversation continued impenetrably around him. He did not miss the headwoman’s reaction to Laurent’s words. At one point in their conversation, she turned and gave Damen an appraising look that felt like it lasted half an hour. Finally, she nodded at Laurent and said something in a tone of polite dismissal. Laurent nodded his head and gestured that Damen should rise and walk back with him.

“What did she say to you?” Damen asked quietly, when they were far enough away not to be overheard.

“She accepts our offer. If some of our men serve at the coupling fire tonight, they will send a pair of riders along in the morning, to escort us safely to the next clan’s holding.”

“And why did she look at me like that?”

Laurent lifted a shoulder in a shrug. “I told her that we were both willing to serve, but that one of us would need to remain alert, in case of attack from a rival clan. She chose you to participate.”

“As you knew she would.”

“I told you, my size is not favorable to the Vaskians, and beyond that, my family line only rarely gives birth to girls.”

“What happens if one of the clan leaders favors blonds?”

“Then I will endeavor to do my duty,” Laurent said drily.

“Well, as you will not be serving tonight, you may as well have my tent,” Damen said. “It will serve as a symbol, at least, and I suspect that any shelter will serve me by the night’s end.”

“As you like.”

“Do you have any advice about tonight’s...events?”

“I wouldn’t think that a man of your reputation would need advice from a man of mine,” was the arch reply.

Laurent.”

“There will be supper first, and then the coupling fire. The women will pass around a cup of hakesh—it translates most nearly to ‘moon-wine.’ Those who drink from the cup signal their willingness to serve at the fire. After that, the women will come to those whom they choose.”

“I see.”

“Drink sparingly,” Laurent advised. “You will need your wits about you in the morning.”

 

The evening played out just as Laurent had said, with a feast of hearty goat-meat stew, warm dark bread, and horns of sweet mead to begin the evening. Then the meal was cleared away, and the first night’s chosen men were led to a different part of the holding. It was open to the sunset sky, with a high roaring fire in the center and piles of furs and blankets spread across the ground. It was strange to see rich rugs from Kempt half-covered by a simple sheepskin, beside woven Patran blankets picked out with shimmering silver threads. He wondered what the Akielons would bring, if they traded with Vaskians. He wondered if he might open trade with them one day, when he became king.

The headwoman drew a great silver cup from an alcove and filled it from a wine-skin. Damen saw the other men looking to one another, hesitating, and so he stepped forward first and accepted the cup from her. Mindful of Laurent’s words, he drank only a mouthful before passing the cup back to her. She shared the cup with the rest of the men, and then the women came forward.

Damen had not felt the effect of the hakesh until the first woman approached him, smiling. She took his hand and tugged him towards the pile of rugs. Damen’s body awoke immediately, and she smiled as she pressed herself against him. Damen kissed her and hurried to remove their suddenly inconvenient clothing.

So high in the mountains, the night was already cold, but the heat of the fire and the warmth of his partner were enough to banish the chill from Damen’s skin. Then she guided him into her, and the world beyond the pair of them faded away.

Damen had always been careful to avoid getting a child on any of his bedmates. Akielos, lacking the stigma against bastardry that was so pervasive in Vere, might well consider any bastard child of Damen’s to be the heir presumptive, once he took the throne. So it was strange indeed to finish within her, and to have her kiss his cheek and thank him for the honor.

The Vaskians were as good as their word. The haze of pleasure had not quite faded when another woman approached him, bare to the waist already and with a smirk on her face. She nudged Damen onto the blankets, and he fell back willingly.

After that, things became somewhat vague.

It was nearly moonset when the last woman came to him. Damen frowned, unsure if he would be able to do his duty by her, but she pulled him to his feet with easy strength and led him back to the camp. The pale canvas peaks looked overbright in the moonlight, like endless crests of waves, and nothing seemed so luxurious as the thought of the pallet in his tent. Half-stumbling with a pleasant weariness, Damen pushed aside the tent-flap.

And froze. Laurent was reclining on his bedroll, a book in one hand. The laced riding leathers were gone, replaced with trousers and a shirt made of fine white linen. He looked up.

“Oh,” Damen said, blinking. He was only half-dressed himself; he knew he ought to turn around and leave, but he could not match deed to thought.

Laurent raised one delicate eyebrow. “Have you come to ravish me, then?”

Damen laughed painfully. “Not even if you ask nicely,” he said. “I couldn’t.”

Laurent rose from his bedroll and reached for the table, where a pitcher and a pewter cup stood. Damen watched the shift of his shoulders beneath the thin fabric, the fall of his hair.

“I could use my mouth, if you wanted,” he heard himself say.

There was the briefest of pauses, and then Laurent turned around. “A generous offer,” he said, “but that is the hakesh talking. Here, drink this.” He held out the cup, and Damen took it.

The water was the sweetest thing he had ever tasted, and so cold it made his teeth ache. “Thank you,” he said.

“Shall I escort you back to your tent?”

Damen drew himself up, frowning. “I can find the way myself.”

“Of course you can. I only thought you might need defending from the women of the clan—after all, if you fall asleep mid-coitus, it might damage Akielos’ standing among the Vaskians.”

Damen declined to answer Laurent’s comment. He carefully returned the cup to the table and stepped outside.

This time, he found the proper tent.

Chapter Text

In the morning, Damen found that his body was less sore than he feared, and the night’s work was a pleasant vagueness, as though it had happened long ago or perhaps in a dream. It would be two days’ ride to the next holding, on a path that climbed ever higher into the mountains. Though summer was approaching, the nights would grow colder as they climbed, and they would need to ride with care in the mornings, so that the horses would not slip in the frost.

All of this, Laurent had told him. Though Damen had visited Patras more than once, the mountains there were not nearly so high as this. His breath clouded the air, as it might in the chill of midwinter at Ios.

The headwoman offered them a farewell at the edge of the clan’s territory. She glanced once at Damen as she spoke, and Damen saw Laurent’s expression flicker briefly before he bowed his head. He thanked the headwoman for her hospitality—Damen had that much Vaskian, at least—and they began the long ride to the next clan.

“What did she say to you?” Damen asked as they rode. “At the end? I didn’t understand, but your face did...something.”

“She called you veleri do kyn safriyan. It means ‘warrior of the upright sword.’”

“Why would she say that? We did no fighting for the clan.”

“I don’t think the reference is meant literally.”

Damen felt the heat rise in his face. “Oh.”

“There’s no cause to be embarrassed,” Laurent said bracingly. “You might consider it another form of diplomacy, if you like.”

Damen rode ahead of Laurent and did not speak for the rest of the day.

 

The second complement of soldiers took their turn at the holding of the Eagle-Cry clan, two nights later. Damen was half-tempted to offer himself again, feeling already recovered from the first night, but likely the Veretians would think that he was showing off.

Instead, he spoke to a Veretian guard—he was called Calian, or something very much like it—and asked if he would pass along an invitation for Laurent to join him in his tent. He had made certain that there was both water and wine for them, arrayed on the low table. Laurent did not drink wine, as a rule, and Damen would not want to neglect him.

The guard ushered Laurent into the tent, bowed, and then left them. Calinen, that was his name. He had been on guard-duty at the Rock Horse clan as well. Damen frowned.

“Did Calinen not agree?”

Laurent sat across form him and poured a cup of water. The motion called to mind a faint memory in Damen’s mind, gone as soon as he tried to grasp it. “Your pardon?”

“Calinen served as a guard at the Rock Horse clan as well. Did he not agree to our plan?”

“Oh—of course you would not know. Calinen offered his support, but he took care to remind me that nature had equipped him to please a Vaskian in any number of ways, but had not granted him a cock to get a child upon her.”

Damen nodded. There were men like Calinen who served in the Akielon army, but he had not known that they served in Vere as well. “Do the others know?”

“Most of them have shared a barracks for years. If anyone protests, they are reassigned. Typically to the northern border patrols. In winter.”

Damen hid a smile behind the rim of his cup. The court and the council called Laurent disagreeable, but they only saw his actions, not the loyalty behind him. It was little wonder that his guard returned that loyalty so fiercely.

Damen unrolled a map and spread it over the table. “I hoped you could tell me where we are,” he said. Their blindfolded ride, along with the twisting paths up and down the mountains, had left him almost entirely adrift.

Laurent leaned close to peer at the map. His hair fell across his eyes like a curtain, and he pushed it back behind one ear. “The detail is concentrated chiefly on Vere and Akielos, so the northern reaches are not rendered with the same care, but likely we are somewhere near here,” Laurent said, tapping a place ten or fifteen leagues from the pass where they had left Vere behind.

They were not even a quarter of the way across the mountains. His dismay must have shown on his face, because Laurent spoke again.

“It is not so far as it looks,” he said. “We will be perhaps two more weeks in crossing Vask, and we are near the highest point of the pass now. Another two or three days at this height, and then our path will begin to descend. We may be able to make up time.”

Damen nodded, but he could not help wondering what was happening in Akielos. Was his father really so ill as Kastor had believed? If so, Theomedes might already be dead. Damen could be king even now and not know it.

He reached for his cup of wine and drank deeply, as though he could drown the thought.

Laurent was still looking at the map. “Once we leave the mountains, I will defer to you as to the matter of our course. We will be entirely in your hands.”

Damen nodded. He had some thoughts on their course, but it was too soon to share them as yet. If they heard some news of his father on their descent out of the mountains, it might change all of his plans in an instant.

In the morning, Damen and Laurent broke their fast together. Jord came to sit near them, stretching muscles that had likely been overworked the night before.

“How did you fare last night?” Laurent asked.

Jord flushed a brilliant red. “Well enough, my lord, thank you.”

“Is the pull of the moon-wine so strong as that, to change your desires entirely?”

“No, my lord. That is, I had...help.” He said no more, but he glanced across the camp to where Aimeric was sitting, somewhat apart from the soldiers.

“I see,” Laurent said.

“Will that cause trouble?” Damen asked, after they set out riding. “Aimeric ‘helping’ Jord?”

Laurent shrugged. “He is nineteen, and free to do as he will. As a fourth son, his chances of inheriting the title are small, so his tastes are unlikely to matter in the succession. His father will not thank him for tumbling a soldier, but I gather his father rarely notices him at all. Perhaps, in such a case, censure is as good as praise.”

 

* * *

 

Laurent’s promised two weeks only applied if the weather continued favorable. But though it rained occasionally, they had no snow or ice that would delay them. Even the Veretians were settling into the routine of nights spent at a Vaskian coupling fire by the time Laurent judged that they were at the midpoint.

On this morning, the air was especially bracing, with a chill wind blowing relentlessly from the heights. Damen, like the other Akielons, had drawn his cloak from his pack and wore it gratefully. It seemed like a long time since they had left the palace at Arles, and though they were rested enough on this slow passage through the mountains, the constant travel was wearying. Damen’s thoughts kept returning to Ios, and what he might find there when he arrived.

He wrenched his thoughts away again, focusing on the path before them. Laurent had dropped back to speak with one of the soldiers, so Damen was alone at the head of the column as they entered a narrow pass between two high peaks.

As soon as they entered the pass, the wind died away, leaving a merciful silence and a respite from the chill. The sudden quiet was eerie, mixed with the echoing clatter of the horses’ hooves on stone—and somewhere in the distance, a quiet groaning sound.

Damen tugged on the reins to slow his mount, looking up. Was it the sound of another traveler in distress? Or an attacker’s approach?

No—far above them, a rock began to slip, grinding against the others beneath it. Damen tensed. It might be only a single rock, disturbed by the passage of a mountain goat...

But the noise continued. Small rocks began to patter down the mountainside, and then a vast boulder began to shift. It alone could crush half a dozen men, and it would bring down a hail of other stones along with it.

They had to get out of the pass, now. But were they nearer to the beginning of the pass, or the end? Would they be able to reach one side before the rockfall swallowed them up? And where, where along the column was Laurent?

All these questions passed through his mind in less than a heartbeat. There was no time to deliberate further.

Damen drew in a breath and raised his voice. “Rockfall! Ride hard for the far side!” He dug his heels into his mount’s side, and she sprang forward instantly. Behind him, the noise of racing hooves was loud, but so was the roar of falling rocks.

Where was Laurent? Damen hauled on the reins and brought his mount to a halt at the edge of the pass. Horses thundered past, but nowhere did he see the bright gold of Laurent’s hair. Nicaise and Aimeric rode past, then most of the Akielons. He counted Pallas and Paschal and Lazar...

There—at the end of the column, with Jord just ahead of him. Rocks were pattering around them now; one glanced off Damen’s shoulder hard enough to leave a bruise. Laurent was bent low over his mount’s neck, coming on as fast as he dared. Behind him, the rocks began to spill into the pass.

Laurent emerged from the pass just as a fall of rock and dust crashed down at the edge, blocking any possibility of return. He brought his mount to a halt, and a single deep breath was the only sign that he had been at all concerned by how close he had come to death.

“What were you doing at the end of the column?” Damen demanded. “You might have been crushed, or cut off from the rest of us, or—”

A rumble, half heard and half felt, came from above them.

Damen.” Laurent swung a leg over the saddle and threw himself against Damen, knocking them both to the ground just as a boulder swept their horses off the ledge.

Damen lay stunned for a moment, the breath crushed out of him by the fall and Laurent’s weight on his chest. Then Laurent rose, brushing the dust off his clothes. Damen took a deep breath, judged that his ribs were all intact, and then climbed to his feet after him.

Laurent was looking over the precipice where the mountains fell away. Rocks were still tumbling and bouncing down from the peak.

“Well. I suppose we will have to walk now,” he said wryly.

“Laurent. I...”

“It’s turnabout. You saw the raider, in the lowlands, and I saw the rock falling. Come, there is no way to be sure that the mountain has settled. We need to keep moving.”

They were able to salvage their packs, which was a grim endeavor, but at least they would have their supplies. As soon as the others realized that Damen and Laurent were on foot, they scrambled to be the first to offer their mounts. Aimeric gamely consented to ride double with Jord, and Lazar offered to walk in Damen’s place. Damen was on the point of refusing, but he knew that if he declined, then Laurent would decline too. The Veretians would certainly hold it against him, and that would renew tensions between the two factions of soldiers, likely for the rest of the journey.

Was this the kind of thinking that Laurent did every day?

Damen fastened his pack to the saddle of his new mount and turned to Laurent. “How far do you think it is to the next clan’s holding? There is nowhere to camp here, and the danger of another rockfall is likely too great, anyway.”

“According to the headwoman, the Gray Sky clan is a day’s ride from where we began. We can still reach them by nightfall if we ride into the evening, and I think their hospitality will extend to the lending of a pair of mountain ponies for our return journey. But you are right. We should get away from this pass with all haste.”

Damen nodded. They mounted up again, now with two fewer horses but—miraculously—all of their men, and they set out for the next clan’s holding.

 

They were late in arriving at the holding of the Gray Sky clan, enough so that the headwoman offered them a night’s rest before any of the soldiers would take their turn at the coupling fire. It would put them another day late in reaching Akielos, but Damen had to acknowledge that the soldiers needed rest.

After the evening meal, Laurent came to Damen’s tent. “It’s a fine night,” he said. “Walk with me?”

Damen nodded. The hard ride out of the pass and the fall from his horse had left him bruised and sore, and he could feel his muscles beginning to stiffen. A walk would give him a chance to stretch before he slept.

They walked along the edge of the camp, beyond the flickering torchlight. “Are you well?”

Damen nodded, realizing it would go unseen in the dark. “Yes, and you have my thanks. If you had not pushed me out of the way...”

“If I had not been at the back of the column, you would not have had to wait for me,” Laurent countered. “We might both have been better off for it.”

“You don’t think it was an accident, do you?”

“A rockfall that happened at the precise moment that we were farthest from either end of the pass? Directly over our procession? No, I do not think it was an accident—but neither do you, or you would not have asked.”

“It would be very bad luck, indeed,” Damen agreed. “But is our enemy Vaskian, or something else entirely?”

That is something we would all like to know. I suspect...”

They heard the quiet sound at the same time—a hoof on stone, the muffled chiming of a bridle. Without a word, they turned to approach the noise.

They rounded a high granite outcropping and saw a Vaskian rider waiting at the head of the path, dressed for travel. Beside her, someone on foot held out a piece of parchment and a silver coin. The light from the torches was behind them, throwing the faces of both into shadow.

“Stop,” Laurent said, his voice ringing out against the quiet. The rider jerked the reins, startled, and her horse pranced in place. She hesitated, as though making ready to dig in her heels and ride them down.

Damen gauged his chance of being trampled to death and found it unlikely. He stepped in front of the rider and caught hold of her horse’s bridle. “Stop, or I will stop you,” he said, his hand on the hilt of his knife.

The woman let the reins fall and raised her hands, coin and parchment still clutched in one fist. “I stop,” she said, in accented Veretian.

The man turned around.

Aimeric.

Damen was moving before he consciously realized it. He let go of the horse’s bridle, reaching out to catch Aimeric and pull his arms behind him. He tried to twist away, though there was nowhere he could escape to. Damen’s grip held firm, and Aimeric stilled, rigid with something that might have been fear or fury.

“The letter,” Laurent demanded. He held out a hand, and the rider, sensing the shift in the balance of power, handed it down to him. Laurent broke the seal and eyed the contents dispassionately. “A week from Akielos. We approach from the north.”

Aimeric spoke. “My mother,” he said. “She worries, and we are so late in returning...”

“Strange, then, that you should not address the letter. Or was your rider intended to deliver the message all the way to Fortaine herself, for the price of a silver coin?”

He said nothing, so Laurent turned to the rider.

“Where was the letter bound?” he asked in Veretian. He repeated it in Vaskian, for good measure.

The woman shrugged. Laurent plucked a coin seemingly from the air and held it out to her. Unlike Aimeric’s coin, it was gold.

“She took the coin and tucked it into her belt. “I was to take it to a village near the border. To a man there, who owned ravens. He would know the seal and send it to its destination.”

“She’s lying,” Aimeric hissed, struggling against Damen’s hold.

Laurent shook his head. “I doubt it. A lesson for you: Any person you can buy to your cause can just as easily be bought again.” He gestured lazily in the rider’s direction. “You may go; I thank you for your assistance.”

The Vaskian turned her horse and rode back to the holding at a walk. The sound of hooves on stone faded into the distance, leaving Damen, Laurent, and Aimeric standing frozen.

“The question that remains,” Laurent said, “is what we are to do with you.”

Aimeric looked as though he would like to spit in Laurent’s face, if Laurent came a single step closer. Laurent shifted his focus to Damen.

“As you have hold of him already, would you take him to your tent? And send for three of your riders—if they have little Veretian and no interest in men, so much the better. My own men can have no knowledge of this until I have spoken with Jord.”

A shiver ran through Aimeric at the sound of that name, and he allowed himself to be led around the edge of camp and into Damen’s tent without protest. After a brief conversation in Akielon with the guard on duty, three riders matching Laurent’s request were procured. None of them had more than a few halting phrases of Veretian, and they had not taken any interest in the pets kept at Arles. Their presence rendered even the large tent somewhat crowded, but that could not be helped. Damen bound Aimeric’s wrists behind him with the leather cord he had used to tie his bedroll.

“Sit down,” he said.

Instead, Aimeric planted his feet, glaring at Damen as though he was facing his own execution. Perhaps he was; Damen did not know what Veretian law demanded, for such a betrayal.

It was not long before Laurent stepped into the tent.

“Did you learn anything more?” Damen asked in Akielon.

Laurent replied the same way. “Nothing of use. It would not matter—we cannot spare the time to go haring off after some mysterious villager.”

“No. And there would be some code or phrase that would let him know if the rider had been compromised. At best, we would lead ourselves on a wild chase. At worst, we would be attacked at the earliest opportunity. I don’t suppose you recognized the seal?”

Laurent shook his head. “It is not a crest that I know, but one would have to be very foolish to close a treasonous note with one’s own seal.”

Aimeric looked between them, fear beginning to seep through the self-righteous rage. It was clear that he did not understand Akielon well enough to know what they were discussing.

“As he is a Veretian,” Damen said, “the matter is yours to decide.”

“Yes. But I would have you ask the questions, if you will. I suspect if I ask him anything, he will simply refuse to speak.”

Damen nodded. It would not be a pleasant duty, but it was the only way that they might glean any information from Aimeric.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t care to sit?” Damen asked, changing over to Veretian.

Aimeric said nothing.

“Very well. Did you arrange for the attack on the plains?”

“No,” Aimeric said.

“But you knew it would come.”

No.”

Could that be the truth? Had he really not known about the attack? He had ridden away from the fighting, which might be attributed to instinct as much as treachery. But the direction he rode...  “You rode south out of the battle, and the rider who nearly killed Laurent came from that same direction. Was she the one who told you what your role was to be in this?”

Aimeric said nothing, which was as good as an answer.

“The rockfall was planned by your partner on the information you sent to him. Was it not?”

Again, silence.

“Any one of us might have been killed. I presume that Laurent was the target, but Jord was riding alongside him. Did you ever care about him at all, or did you only use him?”

“I didn’t use him,” Aimeric burst out. “I would never betray Jord. The last letter I sent, before this, it specifically said that Jord was not to be harmed.”

“And you expected your partner to comply? Did you think he would spare anyone—even you? You have not thought the matter through. The easiest way to hide treason is to make sure that no one can tell the truth of it.”

“You don’t know anything,” Aimeric said. “He would never hurt me.”

Beside him, Laurent drew in a sharp breath.

Damen glanced over at him, and then back to Aimeric. “Who would never hurt you? Who is this generous partner of yours?”

“I think I know,” Laurent said.

“I don’t want to talk to you,” Aimeric replied.

“Of course you don’t. I expect he told you not to, didn’t he? Tell me, Aimeric, how old were you when you met my uncle?”

Damen froze, but Laurent continued, his voice impossibly calm.

“It must have been at Fortaine,” Laurent continued, “and not less than six or seven years ago. He could not have escaped my notice in the palace, and I do not remember your father bringing you to court when you were young. What did he tell you? Did he ply you with wine and gifts, tell you that you were special, perfect, older than your years? Did he tell you—”

“He told me everything,” Aimeric spat. “Especially about you. He told me you’re frigid, and a cocktease. That you murdered your father, and the only person you’ve ever fucked is your brothe—"

Laurent jerked backwards, his eyes wide. In the next instant he raised one arm and swung backhanded at Aimeric, who stood still and unflinching, blazing with self-righteousness.

Damen stepped between them and caught Laurent’s arm. The movement wrenched them both, and Laurent’s rage turned itself on Damen, as it had in the practice room at Arles. Laurent tried to pull away, but Damen did not let go.

“Leave,” Damen said.

Laurent looked as though he would sooner burn the tent around them all, but he knew he was outmatched. When he pulled away again, Damen let him go, and Laurent turned on his heel and stalked out of the tent.

His footsteps faded away, leaving Damen alone with Aimeric and the silent Akielon guards.

“Thank you,” Aimeric said, his eyes downcast.

“I didn’t do it for you,” Damen snapped. Laurent would have judged himself harshly for losing control, and it would serve them better if Aimeric thought that one of them was sympathetic. It might work on him in the days to come—if Laurent let him live that long.

“Watch him,” Damen told the guards, in Akielon. “Do not loosen his bonds, and do not let him harm himself. We need him alive.”

With that, he stepped out of the tent to meet Laurent’s wrath.

At first, Damen could not find him. He was nowhere near the fire, where the other soldiers were gathered, and his tent was dark and empty. But he would not want to be seen like this, not until he had himself under control, so Damen looked to the shadows.

He had not gone far beyond Damen’s tent. Laurent stood in the dark beyond the light of the fire, but Damen could still see the tension written in every line of his body. He let his foot scuff on the ground to announce himself, and then he waited.

“How dare you,” Laurent growled, wheeling on him. “How dare you cast me out of that tent, in front of my prisoner—”

“He made you angry,” Damen said bluntly. “Like I did, when we sparred. You don’t think clearly when you’re angry.”

“You heard what he said.”

“Yes. And I paid it no mind. Desperate animals will claw at anything to save themselves. But if you had hit him, you would only have hardened Aimeric against you. He would forever believe that you are the monster your uncle made you seem to be.”

“What does it matter?”

“It matters, because I know you are already thinking of ways to turn this to your advantage. You would not want to lose your chance to win Aimeric over.”

“What makes you think I want to win him over? What is there to gain from that?”

“An ally who used to be an enemy,” Damen said. “An ally whom your enemies still believe to be theirs. Surely a mind as clever as yours could find some purpose for such a man.”

Laurent said nothing, but Damen thought that the worst of his anger had passed.

“About Jord,” Damen began.

“I will talk to Jord.” Laurent’s voice was sharp. Then he shook his head. “But you should be there, too. It will be better if we present a united front, and if it goes ill...I would prefer to have a witness.”

Damen flattered himself that he knew Laurent well enough by now to read his moods with some accuracy. Now, even in the shadows, he could see all the signs of resignation in him—the way he squared his shoulders and set his jaw. He was a man preparing himself for an unpleasant duty.

“I’ll bring him.” It was not much aid, but it was all he could offer.

“To the torches at the edge of the paddock,” Laurent directed. “I’ll dismiss the guards there.”

Damen circled the camp and came around to the fire, where Jord was repairing a seam in his riding gear.

“Jord? Laurent wants you.”

It was almost painful to see the way that Jord rose gamely to his feet, a soldier eager to do his duty. Had Aimeric fooled him? Or had Jord knowingly betrayed Laurent? Either way, the next few moments would crush him.

Damen led him to the paddock, where Laurent stood alone in the torchlight looking out into the darkness.

“My lord,” Jord said. “You sent for me?”

Finally, Laurent turned. “How many letters did Aimeric send?”

Jord’s face fell, but to his credit, he did not waste time with denials. “Two, since the attack on the plains. I told him you had forbidden any messages, but he said that his mother would worry—that she had already lost one son on a long journey like this, and he wanted to allay her fears. I am sorry, my lord.”

In the torchlight, Laurent looked pale, the fine skin beneath his eyes almost bruised. He had realized he would have to break his best soldier, and then punish him still more after doing so. It was enough to make Damen wish that he could take up the explanation instead.

“All of Aimeric’s brothers are living,” Laurent said, “and he was not writing to his mother. He has been conspiring with at least one outside party to waylay us at every opportunity. This morning’s rockfall was carried out on his information.”

“No,” Jord said, but the word was only a reflex. Damen could see in his eyes that he knew Laurent was telling him the truth. He would not protest, would offer no excuses or explanations, because he was a good soldier. He knew he could only await Laurent’s sentence.

Jord fell to his knees, not as though he meant to beg, but simply as though his body would no longer support him.

Laurent drew in a breath. “You defied my orders. It was done out of kindness, but it put us all in danger. We have lost a day’s riding and two of our horses, and we cannot know if more traps have been laid in our path. If the rockfall had claimed any of our men, I would have little choice in the sentence to be carried out.”

He paused, precisely long enough to let Jord consider what that sentence would be. “As it stands, I am graced with more liberty than that.”

“I do not ask for mercy, my lord. I deserve whatever punishment you choose.”

“You do,” Laurent said. “But a harsh sentence does not give you the chance to make amends. I am relieving you of your captaincy. Lazar will take the fore, and you will serve among the rank and file.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Damen and Laurent waited, but Jord did not rise. Instead, he looked up at Laurent, uncertainly.

“What of Aimeric?” he asked, his voice hoarse. “What— what has become of him?”

In the torchlight, Laurent’s frown was a flicker, barely seen before it was gone again. “I am not quite so cruel as that. He lives, and he will be kept under guard until we reach Akielos. What happens to him then depends largely on his behavior in the meantime.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

“You are dismissed. Find Lazar and have him await me by my tent.”

Jord climbed slowly to his feet. It seemed that he had aged a dozen years in the last few moments. He bowed to Laurent and walked away.

“You are right,” Laurent said, when they were alone. “About Aimeric. He is more useful to us if he is...cooperative. I was too angry to see it, and I thank you for staying my hand.”

“Did you know? About Reynard?”

Laurent shook his head, slowly. When he spoke, his voice was tired, and somehow smaller. “Even after everything, I didn’t think...he’s still family. I thought there was loyalty there. Loyalty to his brother, to Vere. I did not think he had it in him to commit treason.”

“Not everyone is as honorable as you are.”

“I’m not honorable,” Laurent said flatly. “I never told anyone what happened, and my father died because of it.”

“That doesn’t make it your fault.”

“No? Everything that happened since that evening in Reynard’s chambers—everything—the assassination attempts, the accident at Chastillon, the ambush and Orlant’s death...I could have put a stop to it all. If I had gone to my father, to my brother, all those years ago, if I had told them what Reynard had done... If I had not been so selfish, so afraid of censure, then it would have been over. My brother would have ridden out personally to see him beheaded. Reynard would never have had the chance to harm Aimeric—or Nicaise.”

Laurent. You are not to blame for any of this.”

“No? For want of a little courage, I allowed all of this to happen.”

“You were a child.”

“I am not a child now. I could have spoken at any time, and I did not. And look what has happened because of it.”

Damen clenched his fists against the urge to embrace Laurent, to offer any comfort that he could. “This is not your fault. I will say it as many times as I must, until you believe it. But this does not aid us now.”

Laurent sighed. “No, I suppose it does not.”

“What is our best course, given what we know? You could take your men and turn back for Vere, to lay these accusations at Reynard’s feet.”

“No. It is too dangerous still—any ambushes my uncle’s people have set will remain in place. There may be trouble ahead, too, but they will not be informed of our future movements, so we will have a better chance of evading them. Once we reach Akielos, I will send word to my brother about what has happened here.”

“What will you tell him?”

“That Reynard is behind the attacks. Auguste will take him into custody, until my return.”

“And you will have to return immediately, I suppose.”

“I see no reason to hurry,” Laurent said drily. “Let him languish, for a time.”

Damen smiled.

The brief glint of humor in Laurent’s voice faded quickly, however. “I regret that it has come to this. Most of all, I regret that our journey has been so delayed,” he said. “If I could contrive a way for the clans to allow you to pass through alone, so that you might reach Patras sooner, I would do so.”

Patras. The lie that had weighed on Damen for so long suddenly felt too heavy to bear. “Laurent.”

“Yes?”

“There is no war with Patras. The letter I received, summoning me home, was from Kastor. It said...it said that our father is dying.”

Laurent was silent for a moment. “Then I only hope we are not too late,” he said at last.

“You are not angry? I lied to you—and to your brother.”

“Not at all. It is precisely what a Veretian would do, in such a situation.”

“I am sure you can understand why that is not a comfort to me,” Damen replied wryly.

“Regardless, it was the wisest course of action. Revealing your own nation’s weakness in the heart of a rival nation—a nation which is, at best, at uneasy détente with your own—would be unwise, even treasonous. You lied to protect your people. Any one of us would do that and more, if required.”

“Perhaps,” Damen allowed. “Are you coming back to the fire?”

“Not yet. I need to speak with Lazar first.”

“Would you like me to come with you, or would you sooner speak with him alone?”

Laurent hesitated. “Alone, I think. But I thank you for the offer.”

Damen turned to leave Laurent to his thoughts, but he stopped suddenly. “Oh,” he said.

“Hm?”

“As Aimeric and his guards are stationed in my tent, I seem to be lacking a place to sleep.”

Laurent shrugged. “Go and raise the tent in Aimeric’s pack. Since he has borrowed your tent, you may as well borrow his.”

 

There was no hope of Aimeric’s betrayal, or Jord’s complicity, remaining secret. In such a small company, it was a wonder that the others hadn’t heard everything through the canvas walls of the tent. By dawn, even the soldiers who had been asleep at the time knew what had happened.

So it was a subdued company that rode out of the Gray Sky clan’s holding. Aimeric was lifted bodily onto his horse by Damen himself. The reins were given to one of the Akielon soldiers, and he rode with his hands lashed to the saddle’s pommel. Damen had suggested a gag, but Laurent wanted to see if Aimeric would be unwise enough to require one. Thus far, he had kept silent and sullen.

Each night, he was given food and drink, and Laurent asked him more about his uncle’s plans. Aimeric refused all three, again and again as the mountain path began to slope downward towards the Akielon border below.

He did not eat or drink, and the guards said that he barely slept. Damen had permanently ceded his own tent to house Aimeric and his guards, taking Aimeric’s tent for his own.

It had been three days since the Gray Sky clan. The mountains had softened to mere foothills, but Damen could take little pleasure in the knowledge that they were nearing Akielos. Too many other factors weighed heavily on his mind—the problem of Aimeric, for one, and the fear that they would reach Akielos too late.

This close to the border, there were no permanent clan holdings, but bandits often roamed the hills. They set two watches for the night, so that every soldier might have equal rest, and made their camp in a secluded valley.

Laurent came to sit beside Damen at their fire that evening, lips pressed into a thin line. He had come from Aimeric’s tent, and Damen supposed that he had met with no success there.

“I have tried again and again to speak with him,” Laurent said, gazing into the fire. “He says nothing, and he grows thinner by the day. He will fall ill eventually, if he does not die of thirst beforehand.”

A quick, light step approached them. “Laurent, I can’t find the currycomb for—oh. Excuse me.”

Laurent lifted a beckoning hand. “Nicaise, come and sit with us. We are discussing strategy.”

Damen frowned. “Are you sure you want to involve him in this conversation? He’s thirteen.”

“He already knows what happened. The whole company does. And if he intends to serve in my brother’s court, he needs to know what goes on behind closed doors.”

“There aren’t any doors here,” Nicaise said petulantly, but he sat down beside Laurent anyway.

Laurent took a breath and continued. “The situation is this. We have a prisoner who is both dangerous and endangered—soon enough, my uncle and his spies will realize that the messages have stopped. They may already know, and they will try to silence Aimeric if they can, to prevent evidence of their actions reaching my brother in the capital.”

Nicaise snorted. “Who cares? Why do we need him alive at all?”

“Because without him, Councilor Reynard can deny everything,” Damen said. “He can claim that Aimeric was lying, or mad, or that Laurent invented the whole tale.”

“He could say that about Aimeric, too.”

“Yes, but we have the note—and the seal. And I imagine that Aimeric could tell a great deal more about Reynard’s plans...but only if he lives.”

“And only if he is willing to speak of it,” Laurent finished. “Even if we can protect him, it does us no good if he remains loyal to my uncle. I thought, with time, we would be able to convince him he has been abandoned. But time does not seem to be enough. Perhaps he expects that Reynard will still protect him.”

“What happens if he does not? Would Auguste have him executed?” Damen asked.

“No, not if it was clear that my uncle used his influence to manipulate him. But Reynard is very good at turning matters to his own advantage. He would be more than happy to place all of the blame on Aimeric, and to let him hang for Reynard’s faults.”

“None of which Aimeric would believe, if we told him.”

Laurent shook his head. “No. But I do not know what else to do.”

“Do you expect me to recommend torture? Either he will break, or he won’t. It is his choice.”

“This is boring,” Nicaise announced. He rose from the campfire and strolled off in the direction of the horses.

Laurent watched him go. “Well, we did try.”

“You weren’t much better at thirteen.”

“Oh, I’m quite certain I was worse.”

Damen hid a smile. “You had your moments. But you grew out of them, and so will he.”

“There are many in Arles who would say I never grew out of them at all. But come—we can walk the perimeter of the camp, to make certain our guard has been dispersed properly, and then we can speak with Aimeric again. It may be that the two of us can accomplish more than I have done alone.”

The guards around the camp were well-placed and wary; if there was an attack, they would be prepared to meet it. It was with some reluctance, Damen thought, that Laurent turned back towards Aimeric and his guards, in Damen’s tent.

As they approached, the tent-flap opened, and Nicaise stepped outside.

There was the faint sound of a sob, cut off as the heavy canvas fell back into place.

“Nicaise,” Laurent said evenly. “What were you doing in there?”

“Helping,” he said, in the same tone. “You wanted him broken, didn’t you? You were taking too long.”

Damen swore under his breath. “What did you do?”

Nicaise shrugged, brushing a speck of dust off of his clothing. “I told him what Councilor Reynard told me—all of the same pretty words that Aimeric thought were only for him. Now he knows that he wasn’t special, that Reynard was using him. That he’s too old now, and Reynard will never take him back. It wasn’t anything he didn’t know already.”

His voice was calm, almost petulant, but Damen could see the tremor in his hand, the clenched muscle in the angle of his jaw. It was relieving to see that the boy wasn’t as cold as he pretended to be.

“I see,” Laurent said. “Go back to the fire, Nicaise. We’ll take matters from here.”

Nicaise took two steps towards the camp and then turned on his heel. “You’re not going to let him torture Aimeric, are you?” he asked Laurent.

“Of course not,” Laurent said. “I doubt that any torture we can devise would be worse than what is in his mind. But no, we are not going to torture him.”

Nicaise gave Damen a last, suspicious look, but he turned back and walked away towards the rest of the camp. In the quiet that followed, the muffled sound of weeping inside the tent was clearer.

Laurent swore softly, an echo of Damen’s own oath. “Now what?”

“I suppose, now that he is broken, we can go about piecing him back together.”

“Yes, but we are not the ones to do so. Will you go and find Jord? I can’t be the one to fetch him, it would look...improper. Bring him back here, if he will come.”

Damen nodded. He found Jord on guard duty, keeping a careful watch on the silent hills around them.

“Jord—a word?”

He turned at the sound of Damen’s voice. “Yes...my lord?” The Veretians had all stumbled over what to call him in the first days, refusing the title of Exalted that the Akielons used. Most of them had settled for the same honorific they gave to Laurent, and Jord was no exception.

“I think Aimeric needs you,” Damen said quietly.

Jord went rigid. “Why? Is he plotting more treason?”

“Nicaise spoke to him tonight. I do not know what was said, but Aimeric is crying as though his heart will break.”

Jord shivered, the tiniest flinch passing over his features. “And why should that concern me?”

“Maybe it doesn’t. But if you change your mind, the guard has been commanded to let you pass.”

Jord nodded stiffly and turned back to his post. Damen retraced his steps, hoping to find Laurent, but he was gone. Calinen stood nearby. “The prince is in the prisoner’s tent,” Calinen said. “He asks you to join him, if you will.”

Damen stepped inside the tent. Aimeric’s sobs had quieted, but he was still weeping, curled into a miserable heap on his bedroll. Laurent sat at the low table. A map was unrolled onto its surface, but he was looking past it, lost in thought.

When he heard Damen’s footfall he looked up, and then behind him, expecting to see Jord.

“Where is he?” Laurent asked in Akielon. Aimeric did not even look up.

“He says he won’t come.”

Laurent sighed.

“But I’d lay a wager that he’ll be here before the watch changes.”

“I hope you’re right. This state is not precisely an improvement.”

“No,” Damen agreed. He sat down across from Laurent and waited.

It was hard, to listen to Aimeric’s crying. He had lost everything he believed was his, and worse, he knew now that none of it had ever belonged to him at all. If Damen had wagered wrong, if Jord would not come, then one of them would have to try to console Aimeric in his place. Damen doubted that Laurent was fit for the duty, so it would fall to him.

The candle on the table dripped slowly, the only mark to show that time had passed at all. Perhaps an hour later, the tent-flap opened.

Jord stood in the opening, backlit by the distant campfire. His expression turned rueful when he saw Damen and Laurent there, but he walked inside anyway, past the two princes so that he could kneel beside Aimeric.

“Oh my dear,” he said softly.

Aimeric looked up, and the moment he recognized Jord, his sobs redoubled. “I’m s-sorry, I am so sorry, I—”

Jord drew a handkerchief from his pocket and set to wiping the tears away with careful hands.

Aimeric drew back. “I don’t deserve it,” he said.

“No, you don’t.” Jord’s voice was gentle. “But I didn’t deserve to remain in the prince’s guard after I helped you, yet Prince Laurent has granted us both a second chance. I mean to use mine well.” The question hung unspoken in the air: How will you use yours?

It was a start. Damen nudged Laurent gently and gestured towards the tent opening. “Let them be,” he said quietly, to the Akielon guards. “Come to me if there is trouble.”

They let the tent-flap fall closed behind them. Whatever happened now, it was out of their hands.

 

In the morning, Aimeric still rode bound, but he held his head a little higher, and his hair had been combed and braided back from his face by careful if inexpert hands. He had been given a bowl of broth in the morning and had sipped at it carefully, as Jord watched from across the fire. There was no knowing if this was true healing, or only a momentary respite, but it was progress, at least.

A Vaskian headwoman had told them of the winding path that they were on now. She could not tell them where it would end, only that it would lead them out of the mountains. Damen thought it would take them somewhere south of Acquitart, near the border.

The sunlight was warm overhead when they rounded a bend, and the hills fell away before them into vast, rolling fields. Damen felt a fierce joy surge through him, and he could not hide his smile as he turned to Laurent.

“Welcome to Akielos,” he said.

Chapter Text

“How can you tell that we have come down from the mountains into Akielos, and not Vere? There are no landmarks to be found,” Laurent said, as they set out the next morning.

It was not one thing but a hundred different things that all cried out home. The little red flowers among the grasses, which he had never seen in Vere. The warm wind from the south, bearing the scent of drying hay. The endless horizon, without more than a gentle rise between them and the many miles to the sea.

“I can tell,” he said.

“Good. That will hamper my uncle’s attempts to kill us all,” Laurent said with grim humor. “His reach will not extend far into Akielos. What is our course to be?”

Damen had thought on this for a long time. “We go south, through the territory of Delpha and down to Marlas, by the sea.”

“I know where Marlas is,” Laurent put in, his voice desert-dry.

Damen ignored him. “We can refresh our supplies there, and if you think your men are willing, we can make up some of the time we lost in Vask by taking a ship down the coast to Ios.”

“They may dislike the thought, but they will not defy an order. And as Marlas is scarcely thirty miles from Fortaine, we can send a guard to return Aimeric to his home.”

Damen glanced over at him, surprised. “You’re letting him go?”

“We have to eventually, don’t we? If he is still won over by my uncle by the time we reach Marlas, there is no hope that we can gain his trust. But I will station a guard with him, to protect him and to prevent any mischief until I return from Akielos.”

“I’m sure his father will be pleased.”

“I have no interest in pleasing Councilor Guion. If he objects to my decision, he may take it up with my brother.”

“That is fair,” Damen acknowledged. “And the guard you send with him—it should be Jord,” he added, on a sudden thought.

Jord. You want me to set a man who has already fallen prey to Aimeric’s lies as his personal guard?”

“You know him better than I. Do you think he would let himself be tricked a second time?”

“No,” Laurent admitted. “But I do not know whether it is punishment or reward, for him.”

“Then let it be both. Let him mend his error and his heart, if he can.”

They had emerged from the mountains some miles east of the border villages. Here, there were only isolated farms and tiny villages, little more than a cluster of houses and a tavern or an inn. Even their small party would be many times too large for such a village to house overnight, so they camped as they had in the mountains.

After they had spent the night near one of those small villages, Damen sent Pallas along the path with a horse that needed shoeing. He instructed Pallas to return as soon as the farrier was done, with whatever news the villagers had heard.

Laurent was less than pleased when he heard what Damen had done.

“You sent him to them as a lone traveler? What if he draws the attention of bandits?”

“They can’t out-ride him, I promise you that. If they follow him back here, they will have quite a surprise waiting for them.”

“I thought we intended to keep to ourselves, at least until Marlas.”

“We are keeping to ourselves. That is why I sent Pallas alone. He would not betray our position even under torture. Remember, you said you would follow my lead once we reached Akielos.”

“I said I would defer to you regarding our route, not about sending someone out for reconnaissance.”

“I need to know if—” Damen broke off. They were not alone, and even the Akielons were not aware of the true reason for their return.

“I see,” Laurent said, a little less sharply. “Well, it is done, anyway. If Pallas returns with pursuers on his trail, we will send them away.”

But when Pallas returned, just as morning faded into afternoon, he was alone. He rode back into the camp and swung down from his horse, immediately seeking out Damen and Laurent. He bowed.

“Report?”

“I did as you asked, Exalted. I left my mount with the farrier and told the villagers at the tavern that I had been a long time away from home without news. They said nothing of any news from the capital, but I heard a great deal about the haying season and a horse thief in the next village.”

“Nothing more?” Damen asked.

Pallas shook his head. “It seems we did not miss much, while we were away.”

“Thank you. That is all I needed to know.”

“Exalted.” Pallas bowed and went out to ready his mount for travel.

A weight seemed to have left Damen’s shoulders. He took a steadying breath. “Come, then. We ride for Marlas.”

 

Marlas had been built on a rise above the sea, more than a hundred years ago. It was scarcely beyond the border with Vere; indeed, at various times in its history, it had been a part of each nation. The treaty at the end of the last war, nearly eight years before, had drawn a careful line that left Ravenel in Veretian hands and gave Marlas to Akielos. The Veretians had reinforced an old keep at Fortaine, just across the border from Marlas, as a safeguard against an Akielon advance.

Theomedes had wanted one final push to take Acquitart in the north, but so close to the foothills of Vask, they would have been forced to contend with the mountain tribes as well as Veretian defenders. The northern line had been Damen’s first true command, and they had spent weeks locked in a stalemate with Veretian troops. They had been mere hours from launching a full assault when the Patrans had come down from the very mountains, riding between the two armies to demand a negotiation.

Damen was pleased enough with the results of the treaty. Akielos had kept Delpha, which was most important to him. Nikandros had only just been named kyros of the territory at the time, and it would have been a pity to have it taken from him before he could truly begin to settle there.

How Nikandros would react when Damen rode up to the gates with a Veretian prince in tow, there was no knowing. He hoped to be able to meet with Nikandros in private first, to explain matters.

The fort itself was visible from a long way off, its silhouette stark and strange against the sky. It had been built by the Veretians, and the architecture did not suit the style of Akielon fortresses. Strategic improvements had been made where possible: decorative trim-work had been replaced with watch-walks and defensive towers, much to the evident disgust of the Veretian soldiers.

Damen wanted to ask them how Vere defended against enemies when they lacked even the most basic fortifications, but that would only throw salt into a wound that was still too fresh by far.

They were less than half a league from the fort when a gate opened, and a company of guards issued forth, riding hard towards them. Damen frowned. They were armed and armored, riding too quickly for an escort.

Because they were not an escort—they were a defensive force.

Damen swore. A company of two dozen, unexpected and dressed as Veretians? Nikandros and his men would have no reason to assume they were allies, let alone that there were two princes among their company.

“Everyone hold,” Damen called out. He unbuckled his sword and let it fall to the ground, and then he rode forward at a careful walk.

“Damen.” Laurent rode forward beside him.

“No—I approach alone. If it goes ill, you can take the rest of the company and retreat.”

“Of course. I only thought you might need this.” Laurent held out a hand. A length of white silk was laid over his palm, a handkerchief, perhaps. It would serve as a flag of peace, so that the guards would not shoot him at his approach.

Damen took the cloth from Laurent and continued his approach, this time with the cloth held in his upraised fist.

He advanced until there were forty paces between him and the Akielon guard, and then he halted. His horse shifted anxiously beneath him. Damen was entirely aware that he was in easy bowshot of any guard who decided that he was a threat. But he was unarmed and under a flag of peace, which meant that they would hear him first.

“I greet you,” he said in Akielon. “Your defense of the fort does you credit.”

“What is your purpose here?”

“My company and I seek an audience with your kyros.”

The captain did not look entirely impressed. “Your name?”

Damen could not help the smile that crossed his face. “I am Damianos, Theomedes’ son.”

The wide-eyed looks on the faces of the guards were nearly comical as they tried to decide how to properly bow to Damen from horseback. Finally, the captain nodded his head.

“Forgive our ignorance, Exalted. Were we to expect you?”

“Not at all. I regret that my party must impose upon Marlas and its kyros. But I will explain all that I may to Nikandros.”

“Yes, Exalted. We will escort your party to the gates."

Damen rode back to the rest of his company with the news, and then they joined the guard for the last journey to the fort. Dust rose beneath the horses’ hooves, and the air was hot and dry, as though they had been a long time without rain. Summer had come to Delpha already.

The main gate opened for them, and they passed through into a courtyard of Veretian marble. Damen dismounted, stretching muscles that ached from long days in the saddle. A servant appeared at his side almost immediately. As soon as Damen looked at him, he knelt, and bent until his forehead touched the ground. “Exalted, if you would follow me, I will take you to the kyros.”

“I thank you. Lead on,” Damen said, and then he turned to Laurent. “You do not need to come with me, if you do not wish to. If you would prefer to wait here...”

“Not at all,” Laurent said. “I have heard a great deal about your Nikandros, and I want to see if he lives up to his legends.”

Well, he had never had much hope that Laurent would stay behind. Damen steeled himself for Nikandros’ reaction.

The servant led them into the fortress itself. Though the roofline had been altered, the inside had suffered few changes. There were certainly signs of its original occupants—unused rods from which tapestries were to be hung, carved stone balustrades along the stairs and balconies, bare alcoves intended for sculpture and statuary. The gardens, Damen recalled, were extensive and quite Veretian in style, maintained by the groundskeepers as a reminder that the past was not truly so far away. Laurent might appreciate them, if he was missing the palace at Arles.

A door at the side of the hall opened, and a man stepped into the room. A year or two older than Damen and, to his eternal chagrin, a bare inch shorter, Nikandros crossed the marble floor to them.

“Nik.”

He knelt on the floor, bowing his head. “Exalted.”

Damen reached down and pulled him to his feet. “How many times must I tell you that you need never bow to me?”

“I am the kyros of Delpha; my people must see me set an example.”

“You are an ass,” Damen said fondly, and stepped forward to embrace him.

Nikandros returned the embrace fiercely. “It has been too long since last we met, and you have always been a poor correspondent.”

“I have never denied that. But I will offset that long silence with the story of all that has happened since our last meeting. Soon you will wish for my absence again.”

“As though I ever could.” Nikandros paused long enough to spare a glance for Laurent. When his attention returned to Damen, it was wry and exasperated. “Have you taken a pet, then, in the Veretian style? Of course I imagine it is quite easy to fall into that practice while you are there, but to bring one back to Akielos will certainly cause a stir.”

Damen’s face went hot. “Nikandros, may I introduce Laurent of Vere, prince of that realm and heir presumptive to the Veretian throne?”

If he was surprised or embarrassed by his mistake, he gave no sign of it, nor did he apologize. He simply offered Laurent a reserved bow, far less deferent than his bow to Damen. “My lord,” he said. “You are welcome here.”

Laurent mirrored Nikandros’ bow exactly. “I thank you for your hospitality. I have never had the opportunity to visit Delfeur,” he said politely.

“Do you find it to your satisfaction?”

“Very much so. I especially like the new battlements.”

“I am pleased that you appreciate them,” Nikandros replied. “From the highest tier, you can see well beyond the border.”

Not for the first time, Damen cursed Laurent’s ability to wield words like a sword. The compliment was fair, on the surface—Delpha was beautiful, and Marlas was as well, thanks in no small part to its Veretian architecture. Furthermore, he had called it by its Veretian name, to draw yet more attention to the fact that the territory had changed hands several times over the last century. From anyone else, it might have been a mistake; from Laurent, it was an intentional provocation.

“Indeed, it may be much changed from Veretian stories,” Nikandros continued, a cool smile touching his lips. “After all, it has been nearly ten years since a Veretian set foot in Marlas.”

Laurent’s answering smile was sharp as a blade.

Watching the pair of them was like watching a sparring match, and yet worse. Laurent and Nikandros could feint back and forth for an hour without moving into striking distance.

“I hate to impose upon you,” Damen said into the silence. “But we were waylaid on our journey from the Veretian capital, and our path has been a long one. I hoped our men might rest here for a day or two, while we plan the remainder of our journey.”

Nikandros nodded. “You could not be an imposition, Exalted,” he said. “I will have the stewards take your men to the barracks, where there is room enough, and I will arrange quarters for you and your personal guards. You will dine with me tonight, I hope?”

Laurent nodded. “We thank you.”

Damen watched Nikandros repress a comment, probably something about speaking for the prince of Akielos. In the end, he only nodded and crossed the hall again, to direct the servants and guards waiting in the corridor beyond.

“I thought he would be older,” Laurent mused, once he had gone.

Damen shook his head. “Delfeur. You had to provoke him.”

“A man who can be provoked by a single word would not be worthy of his post,” he said mildly.

“But you admit that you were trying to provoke him.”

“I wanted to see what sort of man he was.”

“And what have you learned?”

“That he is a gracious host who would slit my throat in an instant if he thought I was a danger to you.” Laurent paused. “I like him.”

“I wonder how you would have shown it, had you disliked him.”

Laurent waved a hand. “There was never any danger of that. Akielon loyalty is a strange thing; Veretians do not wear their allegiances so openly.”

“Your soldiers do.”

“Perhaps, when they’re not led astray by a young noble with pretty hair and ulterior motives,” he said drily.

A servant came then, to escort them into a parlor off the main hall. Cups of wine and water had been laid on the table, with a tray of nuts and olives and the soft brown bread that always reminded Damen of home. The serving dishes were all Veretian—spoils left in the fort after it had been given over to Akielos. Of course Nikandros, or his servants, had done that on purpose, and Laurent could not fail to notice it.

Nikandros was already there, and he welcomed them with a gesture. “Your people are being settled now. The little one, is he a page of yours, Prince Laurent?”

“Something similar, yes. If there are quarters off the room that is prepared for me, he may sleep there. I intended to bring him to Akielos to preserve him from dangers at court...though I seem to have subjected him to other dangers, instead.”

“You said your crossing from Vere was difficult. What happened?” Nikandros asked.

“Bandits,” Laurent lied smoothly. “We were forced to turn our company north, into the mountains.”

“Into the mountains. Into Vask?” Nikandros’ eyes widened in faint surprise. “You obtained safe passage from the Vaskian tribes? It is said that they slaughter strange men who wander into their territories.”

“It is also said that Akielons are savages who fight in the nude and have their way with every prisoner of war,” Laurent returned.

“And it is said that Veretians are all—”

“Peace,” Damen said, knowing very well what Akielon rumor said about Veretians. “What news from Ios?” he added, feigning unconcern. “We have been a long while on the road without word.”

Nikandros shook his head. “Nothing of note. There was some stir with the kyros of Sicyon, a rumor that he argued with your father over some matter. But he will not disobey his king.”

“Is that so,” Damen said, his mind turning the news over. His father was alive, then, and well enough to rule his kyroi. Perhaps he had rallied, perhaps Kastor’s fears had been unfounded. Despite the danger they had faced, Damen would like nothing better than to learn that their journey from Vere had been unneeded.

That the kyroi were restless, though—that boded ill. The last time such a thing had happened, Makedon had raided border villages until Vere could not help but view it as a provocation, and that had led to Damen’s first visit to Arles. Damen could well imagine that the kyroi wished to test the new Veretian king, to see what reaction they might provoke.

 “I am sure it was not a serious argument,” Nikandros said. “I have had similar discussions with Makedon lately.” He turned to Laurent. “Makedon is—"

“Yes, I believe we are all quite familiar with King Theomedes’ infamous general,” Laurent said, his voice cool. He rose from his seat. “If you will excuse me, I need to speak with Nicaise. And we will need to do something with Aimeric, until we can send him home.” He nodded to Nikandros and then walked out of the room. As the door closed behind him, Damen heard him address one of the guards in the hall beyond.

“Who is Aimeric?” Nikandros asked.

“A spy we discovered in our ranks,” Damen replied. “But he is getting better.”

“I see.”

“I know you said that our coming here was not an imposition, but of course you would say that, in front of a Veretian. We will try not to be here long. A day or two at most, and then we will be on our way.”

“You are always welcome, and a room in the royal wing is kept prepared for you. I admit I am somewhat less prepared to host Veretian royalty. I presume you will require two separate rooms?”

Damen ignored the insinuation. “He’s not as choosy as he seems. Any room will serve better than a tent.”

“You say that as though I am not in danger of causing a diplomatic incident if I offer him a room that is smaller than yours, or receives too much sun, or—”

“You won’t,” he said impatiently. “I promise you, Laurent is not as you have heard.”

“You yourself called him a ‘spoiled brat’ when you came back from Vere.”

“That was years ago. A great deal has changed since then.”

“I can see that,” Nikandros said tartly. “Damianos.”

“Yes?”

“I hope you know what you are doing.”

“What do you mean?”

Nikandros pressed his lips together. Damen did not think he would like to know that Laurent often made the same expression when he was annoyed. He picked up his wine glass and turned it slowly, watching the light sparkle off the Veretian glass. “Do not look at me like that, Damen. I have known you our whole lives, and I know what draws your eye. This prince of Vere could not be a greater temptation were he designed for it.”

“You needn’t lecture me. I learned that lesson when I tried to court him in Vere.”

Nikandros choked on his wine. “You offered courtship? To a Veretian prince?”

“Don’t wrinkle your chiton. He declined.”

“That concerns me less than the fact that you thought to offer it at all. Have you lost your mind? A Veretian, and a royal at that?”

“Do you think you can summon any argument that has not already occurred to me? I knew it was a foolish thing when I offered it. But he declined, as I said, and it is over.”

“Is it? You still look at him.”

Damen sighed. “We have led this journey together, and one is expected to look at the person one is speaking to.”

“That is not what I mean, and you know it. You are fond of him.”

“Of course I am.”

“Veretians are serpents, the lot of them, and the fact that he is their prince only means that he is the worst of them. Maybe that doesn’t matter to you, but think of Akielos.”

Damen’s hand tightened around his cup. “Do you dare suggest that I have forgotten my duty?”

“Not at all. I only wonder if you have considered the consequences.”

“I have. I did, before I ever spoke a word to him about courtship.”

Nikandros shook his head. “You cannot court a Veretian prince. It isn’t done, Damianos.”

“It hasn’t been done,” he corrected. “But nowhere is it written that it cannot be.”

 

The memory of Nikandros’ disapproving face followed him throughout the evening. Every time Damen turned to speak to Laurent at supper, he imagined that he could feel Nikandros’ watchful eye on him.

After supper, he invited Laurent to tour the gardens with him, and to his surprise, Laurent accepted.

Damen did not notice if Nikandros watched them leave the hall together; he insisted to himself that he did not care.

The gardens were quiet in the light of the half-moon, with stone paths laid in patterns to create lanes for walking and bowers for conversation...or other occupations. They were a pale imitation of the gardens at Arles, but Damen could well imagine some homesick Veretian noble designing them, to give himself a remembrance of home.

It was too late for the spring blossoms and too early for summer, but the garden was lush and verdant in the warmer climate. In the center of the garden stood a small fountain, with water splashing gently from a spout carved to look like a swan. A ledge ran around the outer rim, and Damen sat there, gesturing for Laurent to do the same, if he wished.

“So. Are you truly pleased to visit Delfeur?” Damen asked, exaggerating the Veretian word.

“I am. The battlements are an affront, but if a competent architect had been consulted, he might have made them look nearly intentional.”

“I will be sure to tell Nikandros that.”

“Oh, I will tell him myself. I would hate to miss his reaction,” Laurent said, almost smiling.

“I meant to ask before. Is it settled, where Aimeric will stay?”

Laurent nodded. “He is to sleep in the servant’s quarters off of my rooms. Nicaise’s quarters are much the same.”

“Do you trust him that far?”

“The door will be locked and guarded,” Laurent said. “But I do not think he would cause me harm.”

“And you are still decided that he should return to Fortaine? Is there not some danger in that?”

Laurent paused. “There are three people I would trust with my life, and Aimeric is not one of them. Yet I hope—I believe—that he will do what is right, if the moment comes.”

Damen was silent for a moment, a question heavy in his mind.

Laurent gave a short laugh. “You may as well ask; I can all but hear the question on your lips.”

“You may as well answer,” Damen shot back, “if you know the question so well.”

“Yes,” Laurent said. “Of course you are among that number. This journey was not as either of us had wished, I know. But I am no longer sorry to have been sent along with you—if indeed I ever was.”

Damen wondered what, precisely, Laurent meant by that comment, but he did not dare ask. They retired to the royal wing not long after, drawn to the comforts of a true bed after weeks of thin bedrolls on open ground.

 

* * *

 

After two days’ rest at Marlas, the company was ready to move on. Nikandros farewelled them with a banquet to display all the hospitality of Marlas. Damen still saw a slight at Laurent in all of Nikandros’ bounty, but it was true that Laurent returned as much insult as he received.

Then, late in the evening after most of the others had retired, Nikandros produced an earthenware jug, stoppered with cork, and a trio of cups.

“Oh, Nikandros, don’t,” Damen began.

He grinned at Damen and set a cup in front of each of them, and then poured from the jug. “This is griva, a specialty of General Makedon’s family. You must try it.”

Griva, of all things. Laurent did not even drink wine, let alone this fermented drink that was many times stronger. They said it was served in stone cups because the fumes caused glass to shatter.

Nikandros lifted his cup, watching Laurent calmly, but there was a hint of a smile on his lips.

Nikandros knew.

Laurent reached for the cup.

“You needn’t,” Damen murmured, “if you don’t want to.”

“Nonsense,” Laurent said, and he tossed back the cup of griva as though he’d been doing it all his life. He set the cup back on the table with a sharp and challenging thunk.

Nikandros just laughed and poured him another.

And another, and another. Each time Nikandros drank, Laurent matched him. Damen, having rather more regard for the next day, waved him off after the third cup.

As Nikandros was pouring a fifth cup for Laurent, the pitcher ran out.

“Such a pity,” Nikandros murmured, his words only faintly slurred.

“Mm,” Laurent agreed.

Damen sighed. “You’re both drunk.”

“And you are not,” Nikandros said, amused and accusatory. “Our Damianos has learned to control his excesses.”

“Nik...”

“You should tell Prince Laurent about the time you tried that drug, for the slaves. How many partners did you have that day? Three? Four? And you came to me at the end, still so wild that it took my sweetest servant to gentle you at last.”

Damen’s face heated, and he was thankful that he lacked Laurent’s pallor—his blush might go unnoticed.

Laurent poured himself a cup of water with rather more care than usual. “Yes, I’m quite aware of Damianos’ stamina.”

Nikandros looked up sharply, his hazy humor now sharply focused. Laurent’s words made it seem as though—

“The Vaskians,” Damen put in, before Nikandros could murder the prince of Vere at his supper table. “It is how we gained their permission to travel through their territories. By...serving them, to breed warriors.”

“He was very popular,” Laurent said, and Damen thought at first it was the griva talking, until he saw the glint in Laurent’s eyes. “What did the first clan’s headwoman call you? I can’t recall the Vaskian at the moment. Something about an upright warrior, or a rampant sword, wasn’t it?”

“I don’t know. I don’t speak Vaskian,” Damen said shortly.

“No, but you certainly seemed to communicate with them nonetheless.”

Damen buried his face in his hands.

Nikandros let out a low whistle and poured himself a cup of wine. “Well. I’m sure fathering half a dozen Vaskian bastards won’t cause a succession crisis in twenty years,” he said bracingly. “Well done.”

“We had no choice,” Laurent said in Damen’s defense. “It was our only means of passage.”

“I see. And how many Vaskian children did you father?” Nikandros countered.

Laurent waved a careless hand and nearly upset the pitcher of water. “The Vaskians do not favor my looks. And I do not favor women.”

“So I see,” Nikandros said darkly, glancing between Laurent and Damen. He rose from the table. “You have a long journey in the morning. You should get some rest.” He clapped Damen on the shoulder and walked away.

“You’re going to have a long journey to your rooms,” Damen said wryly, once Nikandros had gone. “You should not have let him goad you like that.”

“I am...fine.” The words came out clipped and slow.

“Yes, clearly. Do you want help getting back to your rooms?”

Laurent nodded fractionally.

Damen helped him to his feet, and Laurent immediately listed sideways, falling against him. Damen wrapped a supporting arm around Laurent’s waist, and they set off.

Laurent’s clumsy attempts to walk on his own were more hindrance than help. Damen nearly gave in to frustration and picked him up bodily, but he knew that Laurent would not appreciate the assistance.

“Griva is terrible,” Laurent said, the slightest bit louder than usual. “It tastes like pond scum. Is it made from pond scum?”

"Very possibly.” Damen opened the door of Laurent’s room and helped him inside.

Laurent heaved himself upright and took a few unsteady steps into the center of the room as the door fell closed behind him.

Only once the door had closed did Laurent’s posture change. He slumped onto a Veretian-style chair and buried his face in his hands.

“I hate this feeling.”

Damen had not been overly inclined towards sympathy, since Laurent had clearly seen that Nikandros was doing all of this on purpose. But Laurent looked so miserable that he could not hold it against him. “What is it that you mislike? The dizziness? The nausea?” He knew of ways to lessen both, but the only cure for Laurent’s condition was time.

“All of it. It makes me think of—” He cut himself off angrily, but Damen had already followed the thought to its conclusion.

“You’re safe here,” he said. “I swear it.”

“I know, but I still feel...”

“Helpless,” Damen finished.

“Yes.”

In the morning, Laurent would no doubt regret allowing Damen to see him in such a state, but Damen was resigned to it already. He might as well offer what help he could in the meantime.

“Do you want me to stay with you? Or to go?”

Laurent looked up at him, squinting as though he was struggling to focus. “No. You are kind to offer, but you will need your rest, and the couch in here is not a sufficient bed.” A hint of a smile crossed his face, followed by the most endearing giggle Damen had ever heard. “Can you imagine what Nikandros would say, if he caught you sneaking out of my rooms in the morning?”

Damen winced at the thought. “You are right, that would be far from ideal.” He poured Laurent a cup of water from a pitcher on the table.

“I’m not drinking anything more,” Laurent warned him. “Not ever again.”

“It’s only water. It will ease your headache tomorrow.”

Because he would certainly have a headache in the morning. It might be better if he got up all of the griva tonight—but then, it also might not.

“Fine,” Laurent said, his face settling into petulant lines. “You can go.”

“Are you going to sleep in your boots?”

“Maybe,” he said mulishly. “Why should you care?”

“I don’t. The bed-linens belong to Nikandros, not me. You may do as you please.”

“If only that were true,” he said, frowning down into the depths of his cup.

“Send for me if you need anything.”

“Yes, yes.”

“Good night, Laurent.”

He waved a hand, forgetting about the cup, and water sloshed over his fingers. “Good night.”

 

Nikandros had made all the arrangements, and the captain of a trading vessel had been persuaded with promises of royal gratitude to lend his ship and crew to Damen’s men. If Nikandros painted the Veretians as ‘guests’ rather than soldiers, that was surely only in the interest of calming the captain’s fears.

Judging by the captain’s attitude, he certainly hadn’t been informed that the prince of Vere was among the guests.

Jord and Aimeric had left for Fortaine at first light, with letters in hand for border guards and for Councilor Guion, in case he should protest Jord’s placement among the guard there. If they kept a steady pace, they should reach the fort by nightfall. Aimeric’s long, tight-laced sleeves hid the abraded skin from more than a week of riding bound, but there was no knowing what reason Aimeric might give, if the scrapes were discovered before they healed.

Laurent had dispatched a messenger as well, who would ride past Fortaine and straight to Arles with a message for the king.

The Veretians were not entirely comfortable with the thought of taking a ship to Ios. It was easy to see in their stance, feet planted wide against the shifting deck—and they were still at anchor. Vere had more land and less coastline than Akielos, and it was doubtful that any of the soldiers had ever sailed on anything rougher than the surface of a lake. Even Pallas’ reassurance to Lazar that they would barely be out of sight of the shore did not placate him.

Just before they set sail, Nikandros boarded the ship in order to farewell them and make certain that they had all they required.

“You have been very generous,” Damen said. “We have all that we could need, unless you have changed your mind and wish to join us.”

Nikandros shook his head, as he had each time Damen had offered. “No, you will not have me to distract the people from your Veretian friend. There is work to be done here, work that I cannot complete from the guest quarters in the palace. I would join you there if I could.”

They embraced one last time. Nikandros knocked twice on the mast for luck, and then he descended to the dock to await their departure, just as Laurent emerged at the bottom of the cliff road that opened onto the docks.

Damen could see them exchange words, but he was too far away to hear. Whatever Laurent said to him, Nikandros threw his head back in laughter, and Damen marveled once more that he had ever thought the prince of Vere cold and aloof.

Laurent climbed the gangplank from the dock easily, despite the bobbing of the ship. He showed little sign of the evening’s excesses. Perhaps his eyes were slightly narrowed against the sun, and perhaps he held himself more stiffly, so as not to worsen a headache, but Damen did not think he could have handled himself with such grace after so much griva the night before.

There was still a trace of a smile on Laurent’s lips when he reached the top. Then he looked up and saw Damen, and the expression on his face froze.

“Is something wrong?” Damen asked.

“Is that what you’re wearing?”

Damen looked down. He had changed his Veretian-style clothing for the relative freedom of a chiton, and he felt more comfortable than he had in weeks. “I am home in Akielos—I mean to dress like an Akielon.”

“It is very...short.”

“If it troubles you, you may look elsewhere,” Damen returned.

Laurent opened his mouth as though to reply, but a soldier called out to him from the other side of the deck, and Damen was spared whatever sharp response he might have had.

They set sail on a fresh summer breeze before the sun fully broke the horizon, and by noon nearly half of the Veretians had stumbled, retching, to the ship’s rail. Lazar in particular seemed miserable, and Damen’s reassurance that the condition would not last did not seem to comfort him.

He saw Pallas approach Lazar with a steaming cup of ginger-root tea in the evening. By the next morning, Lazar was moving carefully but with more confidence, and he even managed to keep down a bit of breakfast. His face remained set in a grim expression that softened only when he happened to catch sight of Pallas, but he had no need to visit the rail again.

Laurent, of course, did not seem at all discomfited by the rolling of the sea, and to Damen’s surprise, neither did Nicaise. Laurent shrugged when Damen mentioned it on the second day.

“He is young. I suppose the rocking doesn’t trouble him as it does the others.”

“Does it trouble you?”

“No,” Laurent replied, but he would have said just the same even if he were actively retching over the side.

Damen watched the sun setting over the sea, casting golden light across the waves. “I wonder what sort of reception Aimeric had at Fortaine.”

“If it was anything short of a loving reunion, I have instructed Jord to send me word. I still do not know if Guion was ignorant of Reynard’s trespasses, or if he allowed or even encouraged it.”

“It would be a hard thing for Aimeric to stay there, if that was the case.”

“It would. Jord has instructions to remove Aimeric to Marlas if it becomes impossible to stay at Fortaine.”

Damen blinked. “And does Nikandros know of this plan?”

“Of course. It was at Nikandros’ invitation.”

Damen wondered when Laurent had spoken with Nikandros alone, and what had been said. Had he told Nikandros the truth about Aimeric’s situation?

“Don’t look at me like that,” Laurent said. “I did not tell him the details. But he knows that Aimeric’s relationship with his father is strained. I gather that Nikandros is not unfamiliar with such a predicament.”

Damen marveled. It had been years before Nikandros had revealed his difficulties with his father even to Damen, yet Laurent had winnowed the truth out of him in a matter of days.

“What about the message you sent to your brother? It could not have been easy for you to write.”

Laurent frowned. “Oh, you mean the letter I sent from Marlas.”

“Yes.”

“I did not write to Auguste, I wrote to my uncle.”

Damen’s heart sank. “Reynard? But why?”

“Because I want to see what move he will make. If he will confess all to my brother, in the hope that he will be merciful, or if he intends to call my bluff, thinking I will not tell Auguste everything, even now.”

“This is not a chess match, Laurent.”

“Everything is a chess match. It is only a matter of the stakes.”

“Yes, in this case, your life.”

“Rest assured, I sent a message for Auguste as well, but I did not trust it to a letter. It was encoded and given only to the messenger, who will relay it directly to my brother.”

“And what was the message?”

“Private,” Laurent said flatly.

Damen let the matter rest after that. He spent much of the next few days aiding the sailors in any way that he could, not wanting them to think their prince a useless deadweight. Truth be told, the nearer they came to Ios, the greater his anxiety became. Nikandros’ report that Theomedes yet lived was a comfort, but he could not put Kastor’s urgency out of his mind. His brother would not have urged Damen to come home over a spring chill.

It took just over three days to sail down the coast to Ios. On the morning of the fourth day, the coastline crept into view again, and Damen scanned the green horizon for familiar signs.

Near noon, he saw the first. On a gentle rise, barely more than a wavering mirage, but it was there.

Laurent stepped up to the rail beside him. “What are you looking at?”

Damen bent towards him a little, gesturing to a point far beyond “The pillars there, can you see them?”

“I can,” Laurent replied.

“That is the Kingsmeet. Where all the kings of Akielos have been crowned, for a thousand years.”

“Where you will be crowned, one day.”

“Yes,” Damen said. “One day.”

“May it be a long time away,” Laurent said in Akielon. It was a gesture, a token of support that should not have surprised Damen as much as it did.

He realized suddenly that they were alone at the rail, that in leaning towards Laurent to point out the Kingsmeet, he had brought their shoulders together, Laurent’s velvets soft against Damen’s bare arm. Laurent could not have failed to notice the contact, yet he did not pull away. Damen forced himself to straighten slowly, returning his hand to the smooth wooden rail. He waited one breath, then another, and then he stepped back.

“We will reach the port in an hour or two. If your men have any preparations to make, they should do so soon.”

“Where are you going?”

Damen grinned, caught out. “Aloft. I want to be the first to see it.”

No cry went up from the docks when their ship entered the harbor. It was strange, and somehow pleasant, to return with so little ceremony.

But as soon as Damen disembarked, a whisper went through the crowd, and the docks burst into dizzying activity. No one had expected their prince’s return so soon, least of all in such an unassuming fashion. There was a minor panic on the docks as the workers tried to clear a path of appropriate dignity for Damen to walk. There was no way to clear the air of the smell of fish and hot tar, but Damen would not have cared if he had to walk barefoot through the boiling mess.

He was home.

He forced himself to wait by the gangplank until Laurent descended to join him. None of the sailors and dockworkers would know him, of course—possibly they were making the same assumption that Nikandros had, on first seeing them together. Pets in Vere did not dress in tight-laced velvets, but most Akielons would not notice that. And Laurent’s prettiness would only reinforce the image that Akielos had of its neighbor. He would have to hope that it would change as they grew to know him...

“A fine kingdom you have,” Laurent said quietly. “Does it always smell so?”

Damen resisted the urge to roll his eyes in an un-princely manner. “Come, we will be expected now.”

They made their way up from the docks, climbing a path that was sometimes so steep that stairs had been carved into the rock itself. The path ended at the top of the hill, just in front of the white marble gates of the city.

“Who comes?” the guard asked, though they were not the first to make the climb, and surely he knew.

“Damianos, Theomedes’ son, with the Prince of Vere.”

The guard bowed low and opened the gate.

Beyond the gate, the city was all noise and bustle, nearly overwhelming after weeks of travel and open spaces. There was no rush to carve a path for them here; word had not spread so quickly within the city itself, and their entrance was not marked. They could move with exactly as much freedom as the common folk, which was to say they were bumped and jostled as they moved through the market and the flagstone streets beyond.

If anything, Laurent drew more attention than Damen. Veretians were uncommon here, especially Veretians of his description. Damen was happy enough to be ignored. His thoughts turned to the palace at the top of the hill, and what awaited them there. Would his father be well enough to receive them? How would he react to the news that Damen had brought a rival kingdom’s prince with him?

The climb to the top of the hill was nearly as tiring as the climb from the docks into the city, but Laurent bore the heat and exertion without complaint, though it could not have been pleasant for him.

The last guard ushered them into the throne room, its white pillars rising thirty feet to the domed ceiling above. Damen’s last reserves of fear vanished with a suddenness that was nearly dizzying. His father sat on the throne in his white chiton and crimson cloak, alive and whole. He was thinner, perhaps, than was his wont, but straight-backed and strong enough.

Damen crossed to the Akielon lion, picked out in golden tiles on the floor, and nodded his head.

Theomedes’ solemn expression did not change, but Damen marked the deepening crinkles at the corner of his eyes—a royal’s smile. “Damianos.” His eyes flickered to Laurent.

Damen bowed to his father, conscious of Laurent matching his movements exactly.

“Father. May I present Prince Laurent of Vere?”

Theomedes inclined his head, and Damen saw new silver strands glitter like a crown in his hair. “Welcome, Laurent. To host a prince of Vere is an honor we have not had in too long.”

“I am only returning the honor that Prince Damianos offered seven years ago.”

The first words he spoke in the palace, and he used them to remind the king of the last war. Did Laurent never tire of playing these games?

“Indeed,” Theomedes said. “You are welcome here in our home.”

“I thank you for your hospitality.”

“The servants will make sure that you have all that you need. Will you excuse us, Prince Laurent? I would speak with my son.”

For a wonder, Laurent did not balk at the dismissal. He executed a perfect prince’s bow, low enough to show respect but not deference. “Of course, Exalted,” he said. He turned and walked out of the throne room, exercising a prince’s right to turn his back on a king. The door closed behind him.

The closing of the door echoed all the way up to the ceiling and back down again before Theomedes descended from the dais. He clasped Damen by the shoulder and let his hand rest there for a moment. The king had never been given to displays of affection, but the gesture held all the warmth of an embrace.

Then Theomedes’ brows rose. “I told you to make note of their defenses. I did not say you should bring us a hostage.”

“He’s a guest, Father, not a hostage. I brought him with me as a favor to King Auguste, to protect Prince Laurent from a dangerous situation in the palace.”

“The line between a royal guest and a royal hostage is a thin one, as the Veretian king undoubtedly knows.”

“He is not a pawn to be used, Father.” Damen’s voice was sharper than he intended, and it earned him a quelling glance from the king. “Forgive me. I only meant that it would harm our relations with Vere, if something happened to him here.”

“Nothing will happen to him, of course. But I wonder what King Auguste means by it.”

He means that whatever danger he faces here is lesser than the danger he faced in Arles. “Perhaps it is a gesture of trust, of goodwill.”

“Or perhaps this prince comes to observe our defenses, as well. If that is the case, we should let him see how well-defended our city is. We will demonstrate our strength with display at the Midsummer Games.”

“A wise idea,” Damen said. It would be harmless enough, and the younger generals could use the practice that war-games gave. They had been a very long time without a true conflict, and while Damen did not regret that, he knew that the commanders grew restless, and their soldiers’ discipline lax, when peace extended for too long.

“Tell me about this prince, then. What do you know of him?”

Damen hoped the heat that rose to his face was not visible to his father. “He is clever, and well-liked by his men, though not always by the diplomats in the Veretian court. He plays chess, and very well.”

“Does he?” Interest sparked in Theomedes’ eyes.

“I think he would be delighted to learn our Akielon variants from you. And if he were to lose, repeatedly, as he learned, it might teach him humility.”

Theomedes did smile then. “I believe I would enjoy that very much.”

Chapter Text

Damen’s rooms, when he returned to them, were unchanged; it was absurd to think that someone might have altered them in his absence. Some thoughtful servant had thrown open the shutters, and he could hear the crash of the sea far below.

It was comforting and strange to be among his own people again, surrounded by tunics and chitons and the shuffle of sandals instead of the heavy velvets and leather boots of the Veretians. Already it felt like a headache he’d had for months was fading, presented with the simple white columns and tiled floors of his own rooms.

He crossed to the window, looking out onto the expanse of the Ellosean Sea, and that was when he heard the soft intake of breath behind him.

Damen turned.

A slave-girl waited for him, her golden-brown hair curled gently against her shoulders. The light silk of her garments billowed in the breeze from the window, pressing against her body to show the shape of her beneath it.

Lykaios, that was her name. As soon as his eyes lit on her, she dropped to her knees, bowing her head to the floor in perfect supplication.

“Rise,” Damen said. Even that motion was beautiful, in someone whose every movement had been trained to look like a dance.

She kept her eyes downcast. “Exalted. How may I serve you?”

“I will not need your services,” he said gently, wondering at himself even as he spoke. He was beholden to no one, and he had been months without a lover, save for their journey in Vask. “But I thank you all the same.”

His refusal startled Lykaios, and she tilted her head fractionally to one side. “Have I displeased you, Exalted?”

“No, not at all. I am only tired from the journey.”

She took a small step forward. “Then may I attend you?”

“There is no need. Thank you, Lykaios.”

She bowed again, no trace of her confusion evident on her face, and stepped silently towards the door. She opened it, only to find Laurent in the hall, hand upraised as though to knock. Laurent watched Lykaios step past him, and his eyes followed her down the hall. “Your people are glad to welcome you home, I see,” he said, without expression.

Damen gestured for Laurent to come inside. Laurent closed the door behind him.

Damen reclined on one of the long couches and nodded to indicate the Laurent should do the same on his own couch.

Laurent watched him lie down and then he sat, gracefully upright. Damen rolled his eyes and hauled himself back up, too conscious of their different postures to remain comfortable.

“The servants showed you to your rooms, I suppose. Are they to your taste?”

 “The rooms are very nice, and the view is beautiful. Though they were somewhat...overcrowded, when I first arrived.”

Damen startled. “Oh. Was there a slave waiting for you, as well?”

“Two,” Laurent said. “The slave-master was apparently unsure whether I preferred men or women.”

Women. As though Adrastus did not know what a shameful thing it was, for a Veretian to court bastardry in such a fashion. He would have words with the slave-master for this—just as he would have to explain that he himself did not require slaves to attend him.

“Forgive me. I should have prevented the slave-master from offering such an insult.”

Laurent raised a hand to stop him. “If I were not capable of enduring an insult, I would not have survived long in Arles.”

“Nevertheless, it should not have happened.”

“No, but it is not your doing.” He paused. “Your father seems well.”

Damen nodded. “He is certainly not so ill as I feared. Though for years now he has had better days and worse ones. This respite is only temporary.”

“All the more reason to appreciate it,” Laurent said.

“Be warned—I told him that you play chess, and he is forever seeking new opponents. I think you will like our variations here.”

“I look forward to the invitation.”

Damen wondered if he would still appreciate the invitation once his father had defeated Laurent a few times. Laurent’s pride was a prickly thing.

“Your brother was not in the throne room with your father. Is he here in Ios?”

Damen shook his head. “I’m told he is helping to train a company of cavalry in Thrace. He is not expected back for some days.”

“I hope to meet him when he returns.”

Damen rather hoped that the wouldn’t meet, given Laurent’s unnecessarily harsh opinion of Kastor’s character.

Laurent left not long afterward. The day had been long already, and they would be wanted at dinner in the evening. Damen took advantage of the hours between to rest, waking with scarcely enough time to wash and dress for supper.

The banquet itself was understated, compared to Veretian excesses. The rounds of toasts and desserts ended well before midnight, and Damen had to wonder if it was out of deference to their recent arrival, or if Theomedes was not well enough for a long stay.

He fell asleep that night, lulled by the sound of the waves below, and he did not dream.

 

Laurent came to see him again the next morning. Damen decided to appreciate his remaining days of freedom, given that soon enough he would be reminded to attend to his duties. Best to enjoy himself and show Laurent around the city while he had the opportunity.

“Today I thought I would visit the public baths. Would you care to join me?”

Laurent nodded. “Yes. I am curious to see Ios beyond the palace walls.”

Damen led them out of the palace and into the broad lane beyond. Laurent had traded his heavy velvets for lighter fabrics, cotton and muslin and silk. But the clothes were still layered and laced up to the throat, and Damen doubted that it was a vast improvement. He would have to remind the master of servants that the Veretian quarters were to have twice the usual amount of water, at least until they became accustomed to the heat.

“How are you faring?” he asked.

“Well enough, thank you. The heat is not as extreme as I had been led to believe.”

“These are only the first days of summer. You may grow to regret those words in the coming weeks.”

“The canopy over the balcony in my rooms...it is new, is it not?”

Damen shrugged.

“It was kind of you,” Laurent said.

Damen was hailed and honored as they walked, until their passage was little less than a parade through the streets. Laurent garnered a great many curious looks, some wary and others appreciative.

“Your people love you,” Laurent said, after they reached a quieter street. There was an odd quality to his voice.

“Yours love you, as well.”

“No. They love my brother, and always have. I am...tolerated. Perhaps there is respect, but no affection.”

“That cannot be so. Your guard protects you as is their duty, but they will not hear a word against you. And Nicaise attacked a Vaskian bandit to protect you.”

Laurent smiled, just a little. “I still say there is a difference. Yet you—"

They turned a corner and met a woman walking the other way. Damen stopped in his tracks.

She was tall, though not nearly so tall as he was, and her golden hair was braided into a crown atop her head. She looked much as she had the morning Damen had left, when she bade him farewell at the gates of the city.

“Jokaste.”

She inclined her head. “Exalted.” Her voice was cool and liquid, like water over rocks. Damen was struck, as he always was, by her beauty. Of all the reunions that his return would bring, this may have been the one for which he was least prepared.

He realized with a guilty start how little he had thought of her since he returned—indeed, since his arrival in Arles. They had been together the night before he left for Vere, but they had made no promises to each other. That did not mean there would be no expectations.

He saw Jokaste’s gaze flicker to Laurent for a mere instant. She could not fail to notice his coloring, which she shared, and which Damen had always favored in both men and women. It was as though he could see her drawing precisely the wrong conclusions about Laurent’s reasons for being here in Ios.

Laurent, quite unexpectedly, rescued them both. “Lady Jokaste.” He offered a courtly bow that served to emphasize his foreignness even while it expressed respect. “Damianos has spoken of you.”

A blatant lie, but one intended to ease the awkwardness of the moment.

“I am honored to meet the prince of Vere,” Jokaste replied, but that was all the attention she spared for Laurent. She looked up at Damen. “I have missed you, Damianos.”

Of course, now that Laurent had demonstrated that he was familiar enough to use Damen’s given name, Jokaste would show that she was permitted to do the same.

“And I you,” Damen said. It was the expected response, whether or not it was true. This was as much a dance as a conversation.

“I hope, when you are settled once more, you will send for me. I do miss your company, and our...conversations.”

“My duties will be to the visiting prince, I fear,” Damen replied.

Her cool expression flickered. “I see. Perhaps if I dressed in velvets, instead, I could hold your attention longer.”

“Jokaste—”

“Be easy. I am not so jealous as that. Your tastes were always well known,” she said, “but then, so are mine.” She pressed a kiss to his cheek, cool and chaste. “Be well, Damianos. Akielos will need you.”

She brushed past him, contriving somehow to touch him from shoulder to hip, and walked off into the market.

Damen did not dare look at Laurent. His face was burning, and he did not want to see Laurent’s expression. He kept his head down as he carried on towards the baths.

“Damen,” Laurent said from a few paces behind him.

Damen stopped abruptly and looked back. Laurent closed the ten feet between them at a walk.

“Your legs are too long, and it’s undignified to have to run to keep pace with you.”

“Forgive me, I was not thinking.”

Laurent smiled. “No, you were thinking too much.”

“I suppose so,” Damen admitted with a sigh.

“If I may say it, you don’t seem in a mood for the baths any longer.”

“No, I—” Damen hesitated. He did not want the noise and the crowd, the fawning attentions of the servants and dignitaries. But he had brought Laurent out into the city, and he did not want to turn around and lead him back to the palace.

“You know the city well. Perhaps somewhere quiet, with a view,” Laurent suggested.

Yes. There was a terrace garden not far from the baths. It faced the city rather than the sea, and the councilor who owned it was away in Sicyon, so they would not be disturbed. Damen led Laurent out of the main streets, into a little alley and up a set of worn white stone stairs. The noise of the city faded to a distant hum, and a fresh sea breeze swirled around the parapets to reach them.

The gardens were still a week or more away from full bloom, but the greenery was high and thick, further quieting the garden. If he closed his eyes, Damen could almost imagine them out in the countryside, far from the noise and politics of the capital.

There was a stone bench, but Damen was too restless to sit. Instead, he leaned on the low wall that looked out over the city below, and he took a slow, deep breath. “I never mentioned her to you,” he said at last.

“No. But it is plain enough that she is a mistress of yours. She wears her hair in the semblance of a crown, which would be a gross presumption if she did not have some justification for doing so. Did you mean to make her your queen?”

Laurent.”

“Ah. Do you still mean to do so?”

“No, I...we never spoke of such things.” But he had thought of them, hadn’t he? When he imagined being king, he once imagined Jokaste beside him. Then that had changed, and now Damen tried to imagine himself as king alone, with an empty seat beside him. It was safest.

“In any case, I told her that you had spoken of her, because to say otherwise would have embarrassed you both. It is unkind to cause someone to lose face in public; it can even be dangerous, if you are Veretian. I only endeavored to spare her feelings.”

“You lied.”

“Should I have told the truth? That you never mentioned her by name, or even a woman of her description? That you had all but forgotten her by the time you reached Arles?”

“I did not forget her. And she is not...precisely my mistress.”

“I see.” Laurent subsided for a moment. “These gardens are beautiful—I would expect there to be others here, but we are alone.”

“They belong to one of the royal councilors, and she is in Sicyon at the moment, attempting to gentle the kyros there. We will not be disturbed.”

“I see. Do you often bring people here for a bit of privacy? Have you brought Jokaste here before?”

Damen felt a headache beginning to press in at his temples. “Laurent, please.”

“Very well. If you insist, I will let the matter drop.”

And mercifully, he did.

 

* * *

 

Because of Laurent’s presence, Damen was excused from some of the more tedious duties of a crown prince, under the guise of ‘chaperoning’ his guest around the city—and, ideally, keeping him out of mischief. Damen supposed the story about the fork had made its way to Akielos, too.

So when he had time to spare, he made certain that Laurent knew that he was welcome to visit Damen in his rooms. To his surprise, Laurent frequently accepted.

Today, a shelf on the far side of the room caught Laurent’s attention. There were a few books, and a plant whose lush state was due entirely to the servants, as Damen had never thought to water it himself. But Laurent was looking curiously at the other end of the shelf, and Damen suddenly wished he had thought to rearrange things before inviting Laurent in.

There was a soft toy lion, worn and much-mended, sitting next to a wooden boat and a silver ring with a badly-carved crest—the twin to the one that Kastor had used to seal his letter to Damen. And at the end, a carved wooden box, a hand-span across. It was the most ornate thing in his rooms, nearly Veretian in nature.

Laurent glanced back at Damen as if for permission, and when Damen made no protest, Laurent lifted the lid.

The sharp scent of cedar filled the room, and Laurent looked down on the cushion within. A set of jewelry was arrayed on the satin: hair-pins, earrings, and a necklace, all in gold and ruby. Every time Damen looked at them, he wondered more about the woman who had once worn them.

“They belonged to my mother, Queen Egeria. My father thought I could give them to the woman I chose to marry.”

“Not knowing that you might not choose a woman at all?”

“I am expected to choose a woman, no matter where my desires lie,” Damen said. “It is a matter of statecraft.”

Laurent nodded. He closed the wooden case gently. “They would suit Jokaste well, I think.”

Damen’s face heated, along with his temper. “One would almost think you envied her,” he snapped.

“Only her height and her hairstyle,” Laurent replied lightly.

Damen sighed and sought for a change in topic. “Have you played chess with my father yet?”

“We played this morning. He is vicious.” Laurent’s voice was admiring. “I can see a handful of moves ahead in a match, but I feel like he can see the whole game as though it has already happened.”

“How do you like the Akielon variations?”

“They are intriguing. I don’t think that the practice of sweeping the pieces off the table as a forfeit is very dignified. Though I suppose it is dramatic—and satisfying, in a way. You still lose, but you choose when, and how.”

Damen remembered learning chess with his father and his brother. Sweeping the pieces off the board had been his favorite part of the game, and the part with which he was most familiar.

“Are you any good at Akielon chess? You don’t have a table in your rooms.”

Damen shook his head. “I’ll get one, if you would like to play. But I haven’t much patience for false warfare, as you have seen. Even basic chess is an effort for me.”

Laurent smiled and settled on one of the low couches. “I can well imagine you forced to sit inside and learn from some aged master, looking out the window all the while.”

Damen could not protest; it was too near the truth. Instead, he looked out the window as he had then, and saw the pennants snapping in a brisk breeze. “Have you ever been sailing?” he asked.

“Before our journey from Marlas? No. There is a royal barge for summer festivals on the river, but I do not imagine you would consider that to be sailing.”

“Would you like to try it? A small sailboat is far more pleasant than a cumbersome trading ship...and it is cooler, on the sea.”

“You should have led with that,” Laurent said, rising. “Very well, take me sailing.”

 

The boat in question had a single sail and a sleek dark hull, of a size to seat two comfortably, or three if they were very friendly. It did not launch from the dock where they had arrived, but from a small, private dock beneath the palace itself.

“You can sit there,” Damen said, gesturing towards a cushioned seat near the bow. “Be careful when you stand, so the boom doesn’t swing around and knock you overboard.”

“The...boom?”

Damen rapped his knuckles against the beam that supported the bottom edge of the sail. “If the wind changes suddenly, this beam can swing out and hit anyone not paying close attention. I have seen it sweep a man overboard—though he was recovered quickly, no worse for the misadventure.”

Laurent settled carefully on the seat in the bow. Damen readied the little boat for their journey and cast off the mooring line.

It was strange to be sailing under Laurent’s watchful eye. Most often he was alone when he went sailing, so he was unaccustomed to having his every move scrutinized, especially by someone who had never sailed before.

But Laurent did not criticize, or even ask questions about what Damen was doing. When he could spare a glance for Laurent, he was always looking out towards the horizon. Damen wondered what he was thinking.

The boat rocked suddenly on a swell, pitching far to port, and Laurent gripped the salt-worn rail.

“Are you well?” Damen called out.

Laurent drew his hand away instantly. “Why should I not be?”

“I know you were not ill on our journey here, but the motion is greater on a sailboat. There’s no shame in it, and I would not wish to make you uneasy.”

But Laurent only shook his head and turned back to look at the sea around them. Either he was truly not troubled, or he was determined to overcome it by sheer force of will.

Not long afterward, Damen reefed the sail, tying the rope to a cleat set along the rail for that purpose. Laurent watched him wind the knot around the cleat with interest.

“What sort of knot is that?”

Damen frowned, and then laughed. “I fear I have forgotten the name of it,” he said. “There are so many knots you use, when you sail, and they can be rather complicated. It took me a long time to learn them all.”

The sail having been secured, Damen sat down, letting them drift in the calm waters. He could happily spend all day like this, and once upon a time he had, before royal duties had kept him from escaping so often. He was pleased that Laurent’s presence afforded him a respite from the tedious diplomacies. Though the Midsummer Games were only a few weeks away, and so much work had yet to be done, from building the stage for the royal boxes to planning the order of events, and then the victors’ banquet at the end...

Damen nearly laughed aloud at himself. Here he was, half a league or more from the palace, and he could not stop his thoughts from turning back to royal matters.

“Your father seems well,” Laurent said after a few moments’ quiet. “The warm weather and the sea air suit him, as you said they would.”

“He seems well, yes. But you did not know him before his illness. He is a shadow of the man he was a year ago.” The generals and diplomats would have noticed it, too. No wonder the kyroi were arguing with him. They must have sensed the blood in the water, even if they did not realize its source. Damen took a slow, deep breath. “Kastor was right. He is dying.”

Laurent let his fingertips trail through the water, frowning into the distance. “Is it better, do you suppose, to have a quick end or a slow one?” he asked, and Damen knew he was thinking of his own father.

“I don’t know. A slow decline would be tedious, but it would allow a man to put his affairs in order, to set his kingdom to rights.”

“A wise king would already be prepared for such an end, long before an illness came on.”

“Of course. Every battle my father fought, even in his youth, could have been his last. He is well-prepared for the inevitable.”

“But you are not.”

Damen closed his eyes. There was no judgment in Laurent’s voice, which somehow made it worse. “No,” he said at length. “I suppose I am not.”

Laurent was quiet for a moment. “I have heard nothing from my brother,” he said. “I should have had word by now.”

“Do you think something has happened to the messenger?”

“As we have not received word of any disaster befalling Auguste, that is the only conclusion I can draw.”

Damen frowned. He knew that Laurent’s written message had been for Reynard, but the messenger was supposed to speak to Auguste in person... “Would someone be able to bribe or torture the messenger into revealing the message for Auguste? Was it coded?”

“Of course it was coded, Damen. But a code can be broken.”

“Then we will try again. I can send a complement of guards with your messenger, to be sure that he arrives safely. Or, if that is not sufficient...I can find you a trading vessel bearing north over the Ellosean Sea. It could carry you as far as Marlas, and Nikandros would supply you with a horse and a small guard. You could be back in Arles by the time the moon is full again.”

Laurent looked at him, very seriously, and Damen found himself wanting to squirm under the intensity of his gaze. He busied himself with the sail until Laurent looked away again.

“I thank you,” he said. “If it comes to that, I will accept the offer. But—are we not meant to return for dinner? The sun is starting to sink.”

Damen peered up and found that he was right. They had been at sea for nearly three hours now, and they would be nearly an hour in returning. He swung them around and tacked back towards the royal dock, satisfied at the burn of the muscles in his shoulders as he hauled on the line.

He could not say that his conversation with Laurent had solved any of the problems that faced them, but Damen felt better all the same. He could only hope that Laurent’s worries were likewise eased.

 

* * *

 

The days grew warmer and longer as midsummer approached. Damen found himself forced to spend more time on royal duties, and less time in Laurent’s company. When he could, he sent a message to Laurent, inviting him to a meal or a walk through the city.

On a particularly tedious day, he had not had time to send Laurent a note. He was surprised, therefore, when a messenger appeared at his shoulder in the late morning.

On a scrap of paper, in Laurent’s elegant hand, was a brief message. I enjoyed our visit to the terrace garden. If it is still available, would you care to meet me there?

Damen turned over the scrap of parchment and wrote out a message in Veretian. Of course. Let us meet at noon, if you can remember how to find it...

After the note was dispatched, Damen gently made his excuses to the ambassador from Mellos, begging a prior commitment that was only slightly a lie. In any case, the ambassador of a kyros was clearly outranked by a prince of Vere, so he had no need to feel guilty for his priorities.

Still, he left the palace later than he had wished to, and he reached the bottom of the terrace stairs just as the tower bells began to chime noon.

When he reached the balcony, Laurent was already there, seated on the stone bench. He smirked when Damen appeared, breathing heavily from the long, steep flight of stairs. Laurent looked as though he might have been carved from the same marble as the bench he sat on, a statue placed to surprise the unwary.

Damen sat at the other end of the bench. Already he felt better about his day, and whether that was the escape from the palace or the company, he could not have said.

“Did you have a pressing matter to address?” he asked.

“Not precisely,” Laurent replied. “I only thought you might wish an hour’s respite from trade negotiations and flattering your father’s kyroi.”

“You do not know how dearly I wished for that.”

Laurent smiled. “You forget that I have lived all my life in the court at Arles. I know very well how dear an hour of peace can be.”

They fell into comfortable quiet then, looking out over the city below them. The garden was a riot of blossoms at last, heavy with perfumes in the summer heat. Fat bees droned around them, dipping into flowers and back out again, dusted with pollen.

Laurent absently plucked a series of pale-pink blossoms from a plant beside the bench and began to toy with them in his lap. Damen valiantly avoided asking him what he was doing. He closed his eyes and turned his face towards the breeze, thinking of nothing and everything at once.

When next he looked down, he saw that Laurent had woven the flowers into a chain.

“Where did you learn to do that?”

“Nicaise taught me,” Laurent said, without looking up. “It is easy to forget how difficult it is, to be unaccustomed to the court at Arles. I tried to make certain that he had time to simply be...young.”

Damen was relieved that Laurent’s attention stayed on his work. He knew very well that the smile on his face was too fond, yet he was unable to hide it. Only Laurent, who knew too well the dangers of the court, would have safeguarded Nicaise’s childhood in such a way.

Laurent continued to add flowers to the chain, bending it in his lap until it formed a circle.

“And what is it you intend to do with this wreath?”

“It’s not a wreath.” Laurent tucked the last stem into place, and then he lifted the circlet of flowers and placed it atop Damen’s head.

Damen blinked. The crown of flowers shifted a little, slipping down to rest at an angle over Damen’s forehead.

“Oh, I’ve made it too large.” Laurent reached out to take it back, but Damen pulled away, one hand raised to steady the crown that was rapidly tangling itself in his curls.

“No, no—it’s perfect, and it’s mine now.” He grinned. “Do you think it suits me?”

“Everything suits you,” Laurent muttered.

Damen was certain he hadn’t heard correctly. Grudgingly given though they may have been, Laurent’s words were undoubtedly a compliment. Now he was staring out over the city, his spine stiff and straight.

For the first time, Damen wondered if the flush on Laurent’s cheeks was not entirely the fault of the sun overhead.

“Are you well?” he ventured.

Laurent rose from the bench and leaned against the balcony wall. He shook his head. “I thought...but I should have made my intentions plain. This is not Vere, of course, and Akielons value directness. I have gone about this all wrong.”

“Laurent?”

He turned. “I am trying to court you,” he snapped. “But I have no experience to guide me, and I did not even know if you would wish it, after I declined at Arles, and—”

A sudden spark of hope, never truly extinguished, flared to new life. “Have you changed your mind, then?”

“I have. But I am not content to be the...object, alone. If we are not equals in this, then there will be no courtship.”

“I accept your terms.”

The rigidity went out of Laurent’s posture; the firm line of his lips softened. “I see. Well...that is good, then.” Apparently at a loss, he sat back down on the stone bench. Damen remained beside him, with the customary distance between them, but then he reached out and covered Laurent’s hand with his own.

 

Damianos,  crowned with flowers. By Damnmads.

 

Courtship did not greatly change the tenor of their interactions, though their meetings in the garden became more frequent, and the space between them on the stone bench gradually narrowed.

It was an unspoken agreement that their courtship would be conducted in private. Damen did not want to be forced to explain himself to his father, who would almost certainly condemn the whole matter. And though Laurent would have relished causing a scandal among the Akielon elite, he seemed content to follow Damen’s lead.

They had been three weeks in Akielos, and the days were rapidly growing warmer. Laurent’s guard, when Damen chanced to see them in the palace, suffered their laced, long-sleeved garments without complaint.

“I told them they could dispense with formal dress,” Laurent told him at dinner one evening, “but they will not have it. Something about not wanting to be mistaken for ‘savages’ or such nonsense. I am waiting for one of them to faint so that I may reasonably command them to dress more sensibly.”

“Says the prince wearing...how many layers, just now?”

Laurent shrugged. “But I am not standing guard for hours on end.” True, he had dispensed with the heavier garments, but he still wore a royal-blue jacket over his shirt, embroidered in gold and laced at the wrists and throat. By the end of summer, Damen supposed that Laurent’s hands and face would be an entirely different color to the rest of him.

Not that he spent a great deal of time speculating about the skin beneath Laurent’s clothes. Or its color, its texture, its taste...

Meanwhile, Nicaise had taken to Akielos with enthusiasm, wearing the knee-length tunic and sandals that Akielon children wore. Freed from the formality of the Veretian court, he seemed to be enjoying himself, attending classes alongside the palace’s other children and practicing his most vulgar Akielon vocabulary when he thought Laurent could not hear him.

“He will be quite wild by the time we return to Vere,” Laurent said with satisfaction.

Damen smiled, but his heart sank at the reminder that their time together in Akielos was only a temporary idyll. Laurent would be gone before the winter rains began, and maybe even sooner.

The next morning dawned hotter than any since they had arrived at Ios. The sea in the distance was a golden haze, and the sun beat down on the flagstones of their hidden garden until Damen could feel the heat of it through his sandals. They had met here nearly every day since they began courting, and Damen would be sorely disappointed when the Councilor Aphiste returned from Sicyon.

A soft scuff on the stone staircase had Damen rising from his seat and turning to face the newcomer. Laurent turned the corner at the top of the stairs, and Damen stood rooted to the spot, breathless.

Laurent was wearing a chiton.

The light cotton stopped well above his knees. It was fastened at the shoulder with a pin bearing the Veretian crest, which meant that he had planned for this. Perhaps not to stun Damen with it, but he had been prepared to don Akielon clothing ever since they left the palace.

His sandals laced up around his calves, and Damen could find nowhere to look that wasn’t a danger—the length of Laurent’s legs, the bare curve of his shoulder, the hollow at the base of his throat. And he certainly could not look at Laurent’s face, aware that Laurent was watching his every move.

“Is that what you’re wearing?” Damen finally asked.

“Yes. By the way, you look like a fish.”

Damen closed his mouth with difficulty.

Laurent smoothed the fabric of his chiton’s skirt, almost demurely. “Haven’t you said from the start that Veretian clothing was not suitable for Akielon summers? I am only taking your advice.”

Damen let his eyes fall from Laurent’s face, and the faintest pink line of a scar on Laurent’s arm caught his attention. It lay at an angle, just below his shoulder, and Damen had been the one to put it there.

He wanted to press his lips to the mark, to offer an apology that Laurent had insisted was unnecessary.

“...Damen?” There was a hint of a smile on Laurent’s face, and Damen was not sure how long he had been silent.

He drew in a breath. “You are a menace, and I would like to kiss you.”

It was Laurent’s turn to be surprised, though his slightly parted lips did not in any way resemble a fish.

Laurent tipped his head to one side, considering. “You may,” he said.

Damen closed the few paces left between them. The heat of the late morning was forgotten; nothing remained but the pair of them.

He reached up to tuck a lock of hair behind Laurent’s ear and let his hand linger there, just at the edge of his jaw.

Laurent looked up at him, his expression wry and sour. “You are hopelessly tall,” he said.

In answer, Damen leaned down and kissed him. Laurent’s short indrawn breath was followed with a sigh, and his hands rose to grip Damen’s arms, pulling him close.

Laurent was unpracticed, but his instincts were good. When Damen parted his lips, Laurent did the same, and he made only the slightest sound of surprise when Damen’s tongue teased its way past his lips.

Damen pulled back for a moment’s breath, and Laurent chased him, matching Damen’s eagerness with his own. He threaded the fingers of one hand through the curls at the nape of Damen’s neck, and then it was Damen’s turn to sigh into the kiss. They should try this sitting down next, where their heights were better matched. Laurent was probably standing on his toes, and Damen still had to bend to kiss him properly—but he would not have changed that for all the world right now.

It seemed they had only been standing there ten minutes, but suddenly the bells of the high tower began to chime, and Damen pulled away abruptly. Had they lingered here that long?

Laurent looked beautiful, disheveled and half-dazed. His face was pink, his lips redder than perhaps was usual.

Damen winced and traced a fingertip over Laurent’s cheek, where the skin was hot and flushed. “If I had known this was the course our morning would take, I would have taken care to shave.”

Laurent turned his face into Damen’s touch. “I like it.”

“You like the risk,” Damen countered.

His smile was bright and full of mischief. “It has taken you long enough to realize that.”

Damen leaned in and kissed him again, lightly. “Come, we will be missed.”

He led Laurent down the stairs and back towards the palace and the council chambers. There would be more meetings now—diplomacy and politics and the Games, of course. It would be hours before he could see Laurent again.

They were nearly back to the palace when a voice called out from the side of the street.

“Ho, little brother. Did you think to pass me by without a greeting?”

Damen turned, brightening, and clasped his arms around the speaker. He pulled away and turned to face Laurent, suddenly afraid that the evidence of their past half-hour was written on both of their faces. But he composed himself.

“Kastor, this is Prince Laurent of Vere. Laurent, my brother Kastor.” If there was a warning note to his voice, Laurent was the only one who might have noticed.

“I am honored,” Laurent said smoothly. “Damen speaks very highly of you.”

Kastor grinned. “He spoke less highly of you, when last you met. But that was long ago, of course.”

“We will all be fortunate if history does not judge us as we were at thirteen.”

“Indeed. A pleasure to meet you, Prince Laurent. Damen, I have not yet greeted our father, so I will take my leave of you. I am glad you are home.”

“As am I,” Damen said. They embraced once more, and then Kastor walked away towards the palace.

“Do you think he knew?” Damen asked, looking past Laurent to where his brother had vanished. “Do you think he guessed what we had been up to?”

“Why would he? Why would anyone suppose that the Prince of Akielos would debase himself to touch a Veretian?”

“Laurent...”

“No, I do not think he knew. Now go, you are growing ever later.”

“I will send for you when I am finished, if you like.”

Laurent’s flush brightened almost imperceptibly. “Yes,” he said, “I think I would like that.”

 

* * *

 

Laurent did not always wear a chiton, a fact which was as disappointing as it was merciful. If Damn had been forced to interact with him every day, dressed as he was, he was bound to draw Laurent into an alcove one day and commit an indiscretion that would see them both censured.

One morning in high summer, Damen woke to a red sunrise. The omen was well known by sailors and soldiers alike—it heralded a fierce summer storm. The morning weather continued with oppressive heat, and away in the distance the clouds began to form, growing like wool on a great gray sheep.

The threat of the deluge to come kept Damen from inviting Laurent to the garden balcony. He had begun to think of it as their balcony, though Aphiste might return any day to reclaim it. Instead, he had a servant bring Laurent to one of the palace’s great windowed sunrooms, though there was no sunlight to be had when Laurent arrived. Still, the first drops of rain made a pleasant sound as they lashed against the windows, and the lamps cast warm light to banish the dimness beyond.

Laurent, conceding to the weather, was dressed in the Veretian style again. Damen wondered, not for the first time, how long it would take a servant—or a lover—to unlace the ties at Laurent’s wrists and throat.

But they were not alone today, and so the question would remain unanswered. Laurent stood before the window, his hands clasped behind his back.

“It has not rained since we arrived,” he said, without looking back at Damen.

“Come and visit in the winter; it seems as though it never stops raining in the cooler months. But such storms as this are common enough even in summer. So long as one is not at sea, they are only tedious. The rain may last for much of the day.”

On the streets below them, people hurried to and fro, cloaks drawn around them to keep off the rain.

“Everyone seems a bit more...rushed, these last few days.”

“The Midsummer Games are in two days,” Damen said. Had he neglected to mention that to Laurent? It was such a settled tradition in Akielos that perhaps he had not realized that Laurent did not know.

“I see. They are tests of skill, I presume?”

“Yes. Riding, archery, swordplay, wrestling—many such things. You will have an excellent view from the royal box.”

Laurent turned back to look at him. “Do you compete in the Games?”

“I have, before.” Damen did not think it polite to mention the number of times he had won. “In the melee, sometimes, and the okton.”

“Don’t they just let you win? You’re the heir to the throne.”

“Did your brother’s instructors let him win, because he was the heir?”

“Of course not.” Laurent looked appalled at the idea.

“Then you have your answer. In a melee, one would be hard-pressed to tell a prince from any other opponent, and in the okton...perhaps you will see why it is difficult to ‘throw’ a match to an opponent.”

“I am sure I will.”

“You might compete at archery, if you wished,” Damen suggested.

Laurent shook his head. “I would not wish to intrude on your traditions.”

“I see. Your skill will stand against a spoiled noble, but you fear that you will not match up to Akielon soldiers. It is a reasonable fear; our men are well trained.” Damen kept his gaze on the window, struggling to hide a smile.

“You are trying to goad me.”

“Yes. Is it working?”

“No,” Laurent replied. “It is not.”

 

The rain had passed by evening, and when the morning of the Midsummer Games dawned, the air was clear and hot, a fine day for contests.

The stable-master had deemed the earth too wet for the okton, a disappointment to Damen and the rest of the crowd. But there was no reason to risk laming a horse without cause, and if a horse should stumble the effects could be disastrous. Indeed, though Damen had never seen anyone die in the okton, it had happened, and injuries from minor to gruesome were common.

The games began early, with a ceremony followed immediately by the melee. Damen had elected not to compete, as he had scarcely had time to train since returning to Ios, and he did not want to embarrass himself and his family. Kastor competed instead, and nearly triumphed. He was knocked down at the final moment by a soldier who turned out, on removing his helm, to be Pallas.

There were other contests that followed—discus, spear, boxing. Then a footrace, which was meant to circle the entire city of Ios and would take well over an hour to complete.

After the runners had vanished into the distance, the field before the royal box was cleared, and a company of soldiers took their place, standing in orderly ranks. A mounted captain led them through their paces, maneuvering across the field. They stopped at each end of the field and formed a shield wall, with long ash spears thrust through the gaps.

Laurent leaned over. “Is this display for my benefit?” he asked quietly.

“Entirely,” Damen replied. “Remember to tell your brother about the famed discipline of the Akielons.”

“Yes, I shall write him immediately to inform him,” Laurent said.

The soldiers bowed to the king as one and cleared the field once more, just as the first of the runners appeared from the southern edge of the city walls.

Some years, the races showed a clear victor; in others, two or more runners might reach the royal box at the same moment. But there would be no such controversy today, as the first runner, red-faced and gasping, touched the wall of the royal box more than a dozen paces ahead of his next rival. When the victor caught his breath and straightened to face the crowd, Damen was hardly surprised to find that it was Pallas once more.

Damen felt justifiably smug. After all, there was a reason that he had chosen Pallas as one of his personal guard.

There was a refreshment break after the race, offering them all a respite from the heat and the glaring sunlight. But when it was time to return to the royal box, Laurent excused himself.

“Forgive me,” he said. “I will be back shortly.”

Damen frowned after him as he vanished around the end of the royal box. Laurent had intentionally dressed in the Veretian style today, to mark the formality of the occasion and to make certain that no one, even at a distance, could mistake him for an Akielon. But making such a statement had its price. The sun was glaring down on them from directly overhead, and it would easily be enough to overheat someone wearing so many layers.

Damen turned his attention back to the field, where the archery course was being arranged. It involved several rounds of increasing distance and complexity. Kastor had always been a fair shot, though he had declined to participate this year. For himself, Damen preferred the use of a spear.

On the field, the competitors were being announced.

Among them was Pallas, yet again, and Damen wondered if he would take a third victory. That might pose an awkwardness, if he—

“The final challenger...Prince Laurent of Vere!”

Damen sucked in a breath as Laurent stepped into view, coolly distinct in his blue jacket. Of all the stealthy, underhanded—he had not excused himself to find shade, but to join the competitors at their line.

There was a scattering of diplomatic applause, accompanied by a few decidedly undiplomatic jeers and whistles. But if Laurent heard anything, he gave no sign. He waited patiently for the judge’s signal, then drew back the string and loosed his first arrow.

Each archer’s arrow had a different-colored shaft, and all loosed at the same time, at the same target. Laurent had been given the outermost position, a clear disadvantage—every shot he made would be proportionately farther away, and more oblique, than his opponents’.

But despite all of that, Laurent survived the first round. His arrow had knocked two others off-course on its way to the target, and had sunk in so near the center that it had to be counted a bull’s-eye.

In the next round, each archer was permitted to fire at his own target, but those targets were moved back twenty paces. Laurent survived that round too, and the next, and the next.

Finally there were only two remaining: Laurent, and the multi-talented Pallas. In the final round, the competitors were instructed to loose six arrows at a target in a span of as many seconds. The archer with the closest grouping would be declared the victor.

Laurent and Pallas shook hands before the final round began. Pallas said something, inaudible to the crowd, and Laurent laughed. He was beautiful when he laughed.

But when the signal came, both Laurent and Pallas became sharply focused. They loosed arrow after arrow without hesitation, each shot finding the center of the target while the crowd watched in utter silence.

The judge studied both targets for a long time. Damen leaned forward, straining his eyes to compare the results. From this distance, Laurent and Pallas seemed equal.

Evidently, the judges could find no difference either, and they were forced to declare a dual victory in the archery. Theomedes himself crowned them with the laurel, and when Laurent returned to the royal box, it was to some new respect from the generals and advisors seated around them.

Laurent settled into his chair beside Damen, looking very pleased with himself indeed.

“Are you happy now?” Damen asked in an undertone.

“Quite. Though I won’t be able to lift so much as a water-glass for a week.”

When Pallas approached the royal box, Damen tensed. He knew the boon that a thrice-crowned victor could request of his king, but he knew also that his father was not in a condition to accept. Perhaps Damen could offer himself as his father’s champion, surely Pallas could not object—

But Pallas turned to Damen instead, bowing low. “My prince,” he said. “Will you honor me with a match?”

Damen nodded gravely and rose from the box. Servants appeared as though sprung from the ground itself, ready to attend him. Damen did not think of the many eyes on him as they unclasped his chiton and anointed him with the oil.

He particularly did not think of Laurent’s eyes on him, or the urge to cover himself might have overcome him.

A ring was drawn in the bare earth. Damen knelt in the ring opposite Pallas and waited for the signal.

Then the horn sounded, and they threw themselves at one another, scrambling for a hold.

Pallas did not have Damen’s strength, but he was a skilled grappler, and they were well-matched. The slickness offered by the oil made it difficult to grasp one’s opponent and forced competitors to find more clever ways of achieving a hold. More than once, Damen thought he had Pallas defeated, but he had a surprising quickness to him, even after three exhausting events.

In the end, Damen used his greater weight to his advantage. He wrapped an arm around Pallas’ shoulders and heaved, and Pallas’ knee buckled, sending him tumbling to the ground. The judges cried a victory, and then Damen reached down to help Pallas back to his feet. He clapped Pallas on the shoulder and then walked away to where the servants were waiting with his clothing.

He dressed and returned to the royal box, though his skin still felt slick from the oil. He did not meet Laurent’s eyes as he sat down beside him.

“Well-fought,” Laurent said, without looking away from the ceremony that was already beginning on the field. “I was not aware of that particular Akielon tradition.”

“No, and why should you be? Though it is centuries old, such a boon is rarely won—and cannot be refused.”

“What happens if someone wins four trials? Do they get to rule in the king’s stead?”

“Perhaps. I don’t think it has ever happened before. If we had raced the okton, Pallas might have been the first.” Damen resisted adding that Pallas would not likely have won, because Damen himself had never lost an okton.

He glanced over at Laurent and frowned. “Are you well? You look flushed.” The day had grown ever warmer, and Laurent had been a long time in the sun, overdressed.

“Quite well, thank you,” Laurent said coolly.

Damen called for wine and water anyway, and he kept a careful eye on Laurent until he had drunk some of the water.

The games did not end until nearly sunset, and the banquet followed that lasted well into the evening. There was wine, and more of Makedon’s infamous griva, and by the time the feast was ended half of the attendees had to be helped off to bed by their servants.

But Damen had drunk more water than wine, conscious of the attention that Laurent drew, by refusing wine and griva. Laurent himself was the subject of a number of congratulatory toasts, which seemed to surprise him—as much as anything ever surprised Laurent.

Come to that, Damen had lost sight of him more than an hour ago, but he was not worried. Though the Akielon court had its dangers, it was nothing compared to the backstabbing and infighting of the Veretian court, and Damen had no doubt that Laurent could hold his ground against any of the councilors and diplomats in the palace tonight.

The banquet began to wind down near to midnight, and Damen was relieved when his father retired, signaling that the other royals and their guests were welcome to do the same. He shared a last toast with Pallas, whose three laurel crowns were now significantly off-kilter, and then slipped away through a side door, before anyone else could notice him.

When he reached his rooms, he was half-surprised to find Laurent there, waiting for him. His laurel was still fresh, its leaves dark and glossy against his golden hair.

“Well,” Damen said. “Now you have had your taste of Akielon sport. How did you find it?”

Laurent eyed him thoughtfully. “If I had known the privilege that three victories conferred, I might have competed in other events, as well.”

“If you wish to wrestle, you need only say so.”

Laurent flushed and turned aside, pouring himself a cup of water. The servants had been dismissed already; Damen wondered what Laurent had said, to convince them not to wait up for their master.

“Do you remember our first night in Vask?”

Damen looked up sharply. “Most of it,” he said carefully. Laurent’s words felt like the opening maneuver of a chess match.

“Do you remember coming into the wrong tent, after the women were finished with you?”

“I do.”

“And do you remember what you said to me?”

The conversation felt as though it had happened in a dream, but he knew well enough what Laurent meant. “I remember.”

Laurent set his cup down on the table, circling the edge of it with a fingertip. “Did you mean it?”

I could use my mouth, if you wanted.

“Yes,” Damen said. “Every word.”

Laurent nodded, but he said nothing more. He waited.

“Would you like me to use my mouth, Laurent?”

He looked up, meeting Damen’s eyes at last. “I would.”

Damen drew Laurent back until he was standing against the cool stone wall, near enough to the window that, had there been any other rooms so high in the palace, they might have been at risk of discovery. But they were alone here.

Damen closed the last distance between them and kissed him. Laurent threaded his fingers through Damen’s hair, the way he knew that Damen liked, and they stood there for a long moment. Damen pulled back, looked Laurent in the eye, and dropped slowly to his knees.

Once there, matters became significantly more complicated. “You will have to show me where to begin,” he said, eyeing the laces at the waist of Laurent’s trousers. There were two sets of them, one at each hip, threaded with fine golden cord and tied in a complicated-looking knot.

Laurent reached down and tugged on one end of the cord. The knot came away, but there were still several eyelets to pull the cord through. Damen’s fingers felt clumsy, too large and too rough for such delicate work.

“How do Veretians ever manage to take a piss?” he muttered. Laurent laughed, but then the back of Damen’s hand brushed against him, and the sound faded into a gasp.

Finally, the cords were loosened, and Damen was able to ease Laurent’s trousers down.

Laurent’s skin was pale, dusted with hair that shone gold in the lamplight. His cock was half-hard already, gently curved and as finely made as the rest of him.

Already on his knees, Damen pressed a kiss to the top of Laurent’s thigh. He had no experience at this, something that made him regret how selfish his past encounters had been. With Jokaste, he had...but that was different. Of course, he was royalty, and his partners did not expect reciprocation, but he should have offered it nonetheless. If he had, then he could be more confident now.

He flicked his tongue gently against the underside of Laurent’s cock, and then he carefully took the head of his cock between his lips.

Laurent made a stifled sound of pleasure, between a gasp and a moan, and Damen would have renounced the throne in a heartbeat if it meant that he could dedicate his life to hearing Laurent make that sound again.

He considered what he best enjoyed, when a partner knelt for him, and he attempted each strategy in turn to see what Laurent best liked. Laurent was quiet, either by nature or necessity, which made the judgement difficult. He seemed to like it a great deal when Damen used his tongue just so, and when he pulled back to suck gently at the head. And he seemed to like it best of all when Damen steadied himself and took the whole of him, as deep as he could. The sound that Laurent made was high and helpless, quieted only by what must have been his hand over his mouth.

Damen wanted to hear him abandoned, holding back nothing, heedless of anyone who might hear them...but this was not the place. They were both too much aware of the open window overlooking the sea, and the guards stationed just beyond the door.

Damen drew back, just enough to look up at Laurent. His face was pink, his eyes dark and hazy.

“Can I make you come like this?”

Laurent drew in a shaking breath. “I don’t know. But you may certainly try.”

Damen returned his attention to Laurent’s cock, now determined not to cease until Laurent came. It wasn’t comfortable—the marble floor was cool and unforgiving against his knees, and his jaw was beginning to ache—but Laurent was getting closer now, the muscles in his thighs trembling faintly.

When Damen pressed his tongue just beneath the head of Laurent’s cock, Laurent hissed out a curse and instinctively thrust a hand into Damen’s hair, as though to keep him in place. Damen repeated the motion, bracketing Laurent’s hips with his hands, and Laurent came with a choked gasp.

Damen swallowed gamely but without grace, relishing the sound of Laurent’s harsh breaths above him.

Laurent’s spine bowed, and he rested one hand on Damen’s shoulder to support himself. After the space of a few deep breaths, he slowly straightened again. Damen sat back on his heels and looked up at him.

He was a study in contrasts, pale skin and dark cloth. Above the waist, he was every inch the cool and calm prince of Vere. But the look on his face was wrecked and wide-open. If a breeze came in through the window, he might fall.

Damen rose from his knees, hiding a grimace, and sat at the edge of one of the reclining couches, watching Laurent piece himself back together. Laurent reached for the arched side of the other couch, lowering himself down upon it without bothering to lace his trousers again.

He looked up at Damen...and then his eyes drifted downward. “Oh,” he said. “You are—”

Damen shrugged, as there was no hiding his state.

“I...” Laurent hesitated, and Damen hurried to reassure him.

“Please, do not trouble yourself—I would not ask you to return the favor. I am certainly capable of taking care of the matter myself. All I need to do is think of you, as you look this moment, and I will never need further inspiration.”

“Could I watch you?”

Heat rushed through Damen at the thought. “If you like,” he said, struggling to keep his voice steady.

He unpinned the chiton at his shoulder and let it fall away without much of a show. He did not know how to do this, how to make himself appealing. He had always simply assumed that others found him so—but did Laurent?

He had never been so conscious of himself, not with any lover before. Laurent eyed him in a manner simultaneously covetous and gauging. Damen could not fathom what he might be thinking. Laurent had seen him revealed in the wrestling today, but this must have had an entirely different effect.

Damen lay back on the padded couch, and Laurent rose to sit beside him, near enough that Damen could feel the heat of him. He curled a hand around himself and began to stroke, slowly at first. He had made Laurent come for him, something that he did not think would ever cease to amaze him. Laurent had asked him, had made himself vulnerable to embarrassment and refusal, had trusted that Damen would not let him down.

Damen closed his eyes as the sight of Laurent beside him threatened to draw him to his end with embarrassing quickness.

“No. Look at me—please.”

Damen opened his eyes and kept them on Laurent’s face, even as his hand began to move more quickly. The expression on Laurent’s face was open wonder now, tracking down his body and back up to his face.

Damen,” he said.

Damen came with a gasp, his eyes falling closed as the pleasure washed through him. His hand slowed and stilled, and he opened his eyes.

Laurent was looking at him as intently as ever. As Damen watched, Laurent reached out to trace a finger through the drops on Damen’s chest, and then he brought his finger to his lips. Damen groaned and would have come again, had he been capable.

While he caught his breath, Laurent dressed again, lacing his trousers as though he hadn’t had servants to do it for him his whole life. In a minute, perhaps two, he looked as impeccable as he ever had. It seemed utterly impossible that Damen had seen him, shaking and undone, leaning against the wall for support.

But the faint flush high on Laurent’s cheekbones belied his calm appearance. He leaned in close, kissed Damen softly, and then slipped out of the room.

 

The night after the Midsummer Games marked a change in their courtship. Damen found that Laurent, in their private moments, could be just as clever and calculating as he was in court—though in court, at least, he was not teasing Damen to within an inch of his life. Aware of Laurent’s inexperience, Damen never pressed for more, allowing Laurent to advance their courtship at his own preference. Damen had little experience in self-denial, but he had never been more content to wait.

He was aware that his size rendered some acts more complicated, particularly for one who had not been trained as the palace servants had. But he discovered that, where Laurent was concerned, every tiny action was heightened.

The first time Laurent put a hand on him, Damen came with a shout that he feared might have been heard all the way to the docks. Laurent threatened to gag him if he couldn’t keep quiet, and for the first time Damen wondered if that might not be enjoyable. It seemed he had no limits, where Laurent was concerned, and the thought thrilled and alarmed him in equal measure—rather like Laurent himself.

 

* * *

 

A few days after the Midsummer Games, Kastor indulged Damen in a sparring match.

It was a ritual between them that was nearly as old as Damen himself. Their blades were blunted steel—Damen might learn a lesson the hard way, but he rarely had to learn it more than once. It felt good to be here, with the sun blazing down on them. It was familiar in a way that few things were, anymore.

Yet Damen did not feel outmatched by Kastor as he once had. Had he improved, or had Kastor lost a step since the last time they crossed swords? No, he was young yet. This was his fear for their father, playing tricks on his mind. His worry was making him morbid.

As if to counter Damen’s concern, Kastor aimed a blow that nearly came up under his guard, forcing him to duck backwards gracelessly.

“Careful, little brother,” Kastor said, grinning. “You’ll embarrass yourself in front of your new friend.”

Damen gave a step, putting himself briefly out of Kastor’s reach, and he looked up to see Laurent standing at the edge of the practice ground. He was dressed in Veretian clothes today, unsuited to the weather, but he seemed to have sufficient willpower to simply ignore the heat.

Kastor sought to take advantage of Damen’s distraction, as Damen had known that he would. Damen sidestepped and brought up his sword, scoring a hit against Kastor’s side.

Kastor swore. He stepped back and tucked his sword into his belt, signaling a halt. They crossed to where Laurent was standing, beside a table that held refreshments for the combatants.

“How are you faring this morning, my lord?” Damen asked, careful to keep his words formal. If Kastor thought there was anything amiss, he would bring word to Theomedes immediately.

“Quite well. I thank you, Exalted.”

That was a provocation, too, reminding Kastor that Damen outranked him. And there was something sly and sensual in the way Laurent spoke the term, like it was an endearment rather than a title.

But Laurent did not wait for Kastor to notice any of these things. “May I?” he asked, stepping into the ring.

Kastor nodded and gestured to Damen. “Be my guest. I’ve warmed him up for you.”

“You mistake me. I was hoping to test my skills against yours,” Laurent replied. “I’ve already beaten Damianos.”

Kastor laughed and gave Damen a disbelieving look. “He beat you? Maybe you did get soft while you were in Vere.”

“Once,” Damen said. “He beat me once out of a dozen falls. I should have known he would not let me forget it.”

Kastor barked out a laugh. “Very well, you’ve piqued my curiosity, your highness.”

That wasn’t even the correct form of address for a Veretian prince, but Kastor knew that. While Laurent chose his sword, Kastor poured himself a cup of water.

“Remember, you’re fighting an ally,” Damen said in a low voice.

“Are you reminding Kastor, or me?” Laurent asked, overhearing. Without waiting for Damen’s answer, he advanced to the center of the ring to wait for Kastor.

Though Damen had grown to match Kastor, his brother had always been the unconquered champion in Damen’s mind. But with Laurent standing against him, Damen did not know who most to worry for.

Kastor would underestimate him, that was certain. Laurent’s comparatively fragile looks disguised a great deal of strength and skill, and Damen knew now that he cultivated that appearance, so that his foes took him for granted.

Still, Kastor was not known for his mercies. If he lost, he would take it hard. If he won, Laurent would likely wear the reminder for weeks.

Kastor approached Laurent in the center of the ring and attacked without a warning.

Laurent lifted his blade to meet Kastor’s and Damen watched as Kastor realized the same thing Damen had, months ago: Laurent was not a man to be underrated.

There was no testing, no patient crossing of blades as they gauged each other’s skill. This was a brawl from the very start.

Laurent was the first to falter, stumbling backwards in the unfamiliar territory of the ring. He lost his footing but kept hold of his sword. Kastor advanced, and Laurent rolled to one side, gaining his feet as Kastor stabbed down at the place where he had fallen. A blow from that angle, even blunted, would have broken half of Laurent’s ribs.

Kastor,” Damen shouted.

Laurent drove forward in a new attack, a flurry of blows that force Kastor to give ground. Kastor responded with a powerful swing that Laurent easily evaded, sliding back out of reach in a move that was as graceful as a dance. He held his sword up in guard position and waited for Kastor’s next approach.

Fury was written across Kastor’s face now. He had expected Laurent to be an easy opponent, and to make an example of him. Now Kastor found himself fighting just to maintain equal footing with Laurent.

Kastor launched a new attack, his face set and grim. There was no good ending to this fight. Even if he won now, Kastor’s pride was already wounded. And he would punish Laurent for it, on the field or off.

“Enough,” Damen said at last, rising from his seat. “There is no need for this.”

But he went unheard or unacknowledged. Though they had at first seemed evenly matched, it was becoming clear that Laurent had the upper hand. Kastor knew it and was getting angrier by the moment.

This was going to end in blood, one way or another, and they would all suffer for it. Damen left the edge of the field and strode into the center of the ring, placing himself between Laurent and Kastor.

“I said enough.”

Kastor stared Laurent down, breathing heavily, and threw his sword to the ground. “As you wish, Exalted,” he said, and he walked off.

Laurent watched him go, slowly catching his breath.

“Are you determined to vex every last person in this city?” Damen demanded.

"That particular bear is too easily baited,” Laurent replied. “But I am not surprised to find him so.”

“That bear is my brother. I had wanted the pair of you to be friends.”

“There was never any chance of that, and you know it. Be honest. You called a halt because you knew I would win.”

“I called a halt because one of you was going to kill the other, blunted blades or no.”

Laurent said nothing, but his expression was skeptical.

“Kastor has too much pride. If he had lost to you, he would have borne a grudge. And I would not have the two of you at odds.”

“Then you have not been paying attention. We were at odds from the moment I set foot in this city. He does not want me here.”

“Maybe not. But you are here, as my guest, and he will accept it.”

“Will he, indeed?” Laurent asked. “We shall see.”

 

* * *

 

On a warm morning two weeks after the Midsummer Games, Laurent climbed the stairs to the gardens with an unfathomably smug look on his face.

“You look like a cat fallen into a creamery,” Damen said. “What have you been up to?”

“I played chess with your father this morning, and he forfeited to me.”

Forfeits in Akielon chess were dramatic things; seeing inevitable defeat, a player could acknowledge it by sweeping the pieces from the board. In all the years Damen had played against his father, or watched him play against other chess masters, he had never once seen him forfeit. Even when defeat was inevitable, he had always played to the final move.

“Did he?” Damen asked.

“It was a lucky gambit—it must have been. I confess, I am not sure what your father saw that made him believe that defeat was certain. And then, of course...” Laurent made an expansive gesture with one arm. “There was no longer anything to see.”

“Luck or not, you are to be commended,” Damen said, pulling Laurent close to him. “Allow me to offer you congratulations.”

Laurent laughed and leaned in, but a soft footstep somewhere behind them sent them flying apart. A woman with iron-gray hair and a strong, aquiline nose stepped into view from one of the garden paths.

“Aphiste, forgive me,” Damen said, bowing deeply. “I hope you do not mind our intrusion—I recalled that the view from your gardens was unique among the other villas here, and I wanted to show Prince Laurent a side of the city he had not seen before.”

She bowed in response. “You are always welcome here, Exalted,” she said. “It is a pleasure to meet the Prince of Vere, as well, and to know that he appreciates our city.”

Laurent nodded. “Yes, Prince Damianos has been very dedicated to showing me new things,” he said in a perfectly neutral tone. “But we should not trespass on your refuge any longer. I thank you for your kindness.”

“Of course,” Aphiste said. “Be well.”

“And you.”

They descended the steep stairs to the street, and Damen resisted the urge to grab Laurent by the arm, pull him into an alley, and shake him.

Dedicated to showing you new things,” Damen hissed. “I thought I would break a rib trying not to laugh.”

“As I intended, of course. Still, I will miss our gardens.”

Damen waved a hand. “I will have a garden built in the palace for you, if you wish.”

“Yes. Or we could simply retire to your rooms.”

“If only we could,” Damen said with a sigh. “But I must meet with a Thracian diplomat for my father this afternoon, and it would not do to arrive disheveled and dazed, as I always am after an hour in your company.”

They parted ways at the gates of the palace, and Damen was able to comport himself with relative dignity in front of the Thracians. But Laurent’s words about Theomedes’ forfeit did not leave Damen’s mind. Later in the afternoon, he climbed the stairs to his father’s chambers.

The guards at the door bowed but did not move. “Prince Damianos,” one said. “Your father is resting.”

“Is he unwell today?” These were the king’s personal guard; they knew of Theomedes’ illness.

She nodded.

“Is he well enough that I may see him, for a moment?”

The two guards glanced at each other, conferring silently, and then they stepped aside. “The physician recommended that he rest.”

“I do not intend to trouble him, I promise.”

Damen opened the door. The study was dark and quiet, and the bedroom beyond was dim—Damn knew that his father’s illness was often accompanied by headaches, so the shutters must have been closed.

Within, Theomedes was sitting up in bed, writing something on a wooden lap-desk.

“Father?” he said.

Theomedes looked up and sighed. “How did you know?” he asked, resigned. Even his voice sounded thin, weak.

“Laurent said that he beat you at chess today. You never lose.”

Even through his exhaustion, the king’s face twisted wryly. “Yes, and undoubtedly your Veretian friend will think himself very clever for having beaten me. But it is unforgivable to show weakness in front of a rival nation, whether we are at peace or not.”

“Are you still feeling unwell? The guards said that your physician was here.”

“Yes—he gave me a tincture of laudanum and insisted that I sleep,” he said, gesturing towards a cup on the table beside the bed. It was still full.

“I see you have not taken his advice.”

“I am not yet so much an invalid that I must sleep the day away. You know how this is. I will rest tonight, and in a day or two this illness will have passed.”

“Yes,” Damen said, but the illness always left its marks. “Father, if I may. There is a physician among the Veretians, Paschal. He saved more than one of our soldiers on the journey here. I am sure he would swear to secrecy, if you would allow him to—”

“A Veretian? Never.”

“Father...”

“I am old, Damianos. These things happen with age.”

“You are not so old as that,” he countered. Not old enough to grow winded at a walk through the gardens, or to forfeit a chess match because he could not hide the trembling long enough to finish it.

But he knew that nothing good would come of insisting. His father would only grow irritated with him, and the physician had said that he needed to rest...

Damen bowed his head. “If there are any matters that must be handled, please do not trouble yourself—I will be happy to serve in your stead, if I may.”

Theomedes nodded. “I will have the steward come to you if he requires you.”

Damen turned to go. “Be well, Father,” he said, as though speaking the words could make them true.

“And you,” he said, quietly.

Damen walked out of the royal apartments and closed the door behind them. He stood in the corridor for a moment, at a loss, and then he leaned on the windowsill at the end of the hall, looking out over the sea and trying to rein himself in.

Someone approached the sill and stood beside him. “You see why I called you back here,” Kastor said.

Damen took a deep breath and scrubbed a hand over his face. Kastor would not shame him, but he did not want his brother to see his childish tears. “You were right to ask me to come home,” he said. “Are there many days like this?”

Kastor considered. “More than last winter, but not so many as in the spring. He is better than he was some weeks ago.”

“Then perhaps he has come through the worst of it.”

“Yes, perhaps,” Kastor said, but Damen heard in his voice the indulgent tone of an older brother, sparing the younger’s feelings. It was a lie, and they knew it, yet they both took comfort in the sound of the words.

Kastor clasped Damen by the shoulder. “Be easy. He still has his good days. And when the time comes, you will be ready.”

 

Damen did not ask Laurent to join him that evening, and Laurent did not come to him, knowing somehow that he would prefer to be alone. But the next night he made amends, inviting Laurent and Nicaise for  supper in his rooms. He had a gift for Nicaise—the sword he had promised, after their battle in Vere—and he wanted to present it to the boy himself.

Servants brought in trays of bread and meat and cheese, and pitchers of water and wine. They poured cups of each for everyone, heavily watering Nicaise’s wine as was the custom for children.

“It is good to see you,” Laurent said politely, mindful of their company. “I did have a matter that I wished to discuss with you, later.”

Damen nodded. “I am at your disposal, of course.”

“You don’t need to talk in code,” Nicaise broke in. “You’re not as quiet as you think you are, anyway.”

Nicaise,” Laurent snapped. His eyes strayed to Lazar, keeping guard in a corner of the room, but he was politely pretending that he could not hear anything that had been said.

“It’s not my fault! I heard you kissing,” he said, making a face.

Damen sighed. “After everything, to be caught out by a child.”

“I’m not a—”

“An adolescent,” Damen corrected. “But then, we should not have underestimated you. And on that subject, I have a gift for you.”

Damen rose from his couch to pick up the shortsword. He drew it from its scabbard and held it out to Nicaise, balanced on his palms.

Nicaise’s eyes widened. “For me?”

“I promised you, did I not? A blade in honor of your first battle, and of a size to suit you. The palace training master knows to expect you, if you wish to learn how to use it.”

Nicaise’s hand closed on the hilt, and he held the blade up, watching the light shine on its length. “It isn’t blunted.”

“No, it’s true steel. Your training blades will be blunted, at least until you have learned enough to use this.”

Nicaise took the scabbard back and slid the sword into it, leaning it against the side of the table. “Thank you, Prince Damen,” he said.

Prince Damen. He had to smile—it was a blend of formal and familiar, and it made him want to ruffle the boy’s hair. “You needn’t thank me. You earned this.”

Nicaise ducked his head and took a sip of his wine, clearly not wanting to be the object of attention any longer. Damen sat down across from Laurent.

“I did not see your father today,” Laurent said. “I sent a messenger to offer another chess match, but the messenger returned to say he was busy. It seemed that she returned rather quickly. Is everything...?”

“He was ill yesterday,” Damen said heavily. “Perhaps he still is.”

“Ah. So that is why he forfeited to me.”

Damen nodded. “He would not have me tell you, but I—” I have no one in whom to confide, he thought.

Laurent nodded. “I feared that might be the case. He seemed less focused, than he typically is when we play.”

“The physicians do not know what ails him. It grows worse and better by the seasons, but...”

“But better does not mean well, does it?”

“No.” And every period of illness weakened him further. It was only a matter of time before he found himself unable to recover. Damen only hoped that he would survive long enough to abdicate and let the crown pass to Damen while his father was still well enough to serve as an advisor.

“Forgive me, I did not mean to make you dwell on unpleasant matters. I—”

There was a rattle of metal on stone, and they both turned to look at Nicaise. His cup had fallen to the floor, and he was half-standing, gripping the table as though for support. Beneath weeks of sun, his skin was ashen; he swayed as though he would fall over.

“L-Laurent? I’m sorry, but I— I don’t feel...”

Laurent rushed to steady him. Nicaise’s dinner was in front of him, scarcely touched, but the cup that had fallen to the floor was empty already. Damen watched Laurent’s face harden, and he turned to the guard stationed subtly in the corner.

“Lazar, take Nicaise to Paschal, now. Tell him there was poison in the wine. Don’t stop for anyone. Carry him if you have to.”

Damen pulled the signet ring from his finger and tossed it to Lazar, who caught it easily. “If anyone tries to stop you, you are on royal business. Show them this, and they will aid you.”

Lazar nodded. He wrapped an arm under Nicaise’s shoulders and swept him out of the room’s side door, which would let him out nearer to the Veretians’ quarters. Laurent gazed after them for a heartbeat, his face set and furious, and then he rounded on Damen.

“Did you drink the wine?”

He shook his head, grateful for Laurent’s habit of water rather than wine. “Someone drugged it or poisoned it, then. They intended for both of us to drink it.”

“Yes. And instead they poisoned a child.” Laurent’s hands clenched into fists.

“His wine was watered,” Damen said bracingly. “That will help. I will summon the guard and have the palace combed for—”

The door behind them burst open, and a crowd of guards appeared in the doorway, hands ready on the hilts of their swords. Lazar must have raised the alarm, then.

Damen gestured towards the remains of the meal on the table. “There has been an attempt on my life, and Prince Laurent’s. The wine was tainted. Raise the guard and have the palace searched.”

But the soldiers were not moving to secure the room or to take up defensive positions. They held back near the doorway, frowning as they looked to one another. Damen realized in an instant that the soldiers had not expected to find them alive—or at least conscious.

A coup, then.

There were a dozen of them at least, but Damen had taken on as many in the melee without a scratch. He would not let them touch Laurent, not while he breathed. He reached for the shortsword that he had presented to Nicaise only half an hour before. It would be a race, before one of the soldiers drew his own sword, or unshouldered a bow—

A rattle from the fireplace.

“Damen, look out!”

He turned at Laurent’s shout, sword in hand, just in time to see a flash of metal. Something hit his head with a dull, heavy sound, and that was the last thing that he knew.

Chapter Text

Laurent’s heart seemed to stop as he watched Damen crumple to the floor. The soldier turned and advanced on him, the fireplace tool held menacingly in his hands. Laurent paced backwards and held up empty hands.

“I surrender,” he said. The words were meaningless, barely heard over the high ringing of fear and rage in his ears, but if he said them, it would afford him a better chance to remain conscious. Would Lazar rouse the rest of the Veretian guard? It would be a bloodbath, if they came upon the soldiers here, but it might alert the more loyal Akielons...

...if there were any to be found. Laurent’s eyes strayed to Damen. Was he breathing, or was it a breeze from the open window that gave the illusion of life?

If he was dead, Laurent was going to burn this city to the ground.

The soldiers crowded into the room, and Laurent held his hands out higher. “You don’t need to do this,” he said calmly. “Whatever you’ve been offered, I can give you more.”

“Can you?” asked a voice from behind the soldiers. They parted ranks to reveal Kastor, armed and armored, standing in the doorway. “Can you give me more than what I’ve been offered?”

He stopped in front of Laurent, just out of arm’s reach. “Can you give me Akielos?”

“Is that what my uncle has promised you?” Laurent asked, gratified to see a flicker of surprise on Kastor’s face.

This was why they had faced no attacks since crossing the border. Of course Reynard would not place all of his hopes on a single young man; Aimeric was only his first foray. Even when they once played at chess, Reynard always had secondary plans in place. And Kastor, in his bitterness, would have needed very little to tip him into outright treason...

“Do you really mean to do this?” Laurent asked, softer now. “To your own brother?”

“Half-brother,” Kastor snapped.

“Damianos does not do things by halves. When he speaks of you, you are always his brother.”

“He does not believe that. If he did, then he would allow the crown to pass to me, as the elder.”

“Perhaps he might. Have you ever asked him to?”

Kastor sneered. “What man would willingly relinquish a crown?”

“A good one. A man who knows that another can rule better in his stead. Were Auguste and I twins, I would have ceded my birthright to him.”

“That is easy to say when it is a passing fancy.”

“Indeed. But tell me, why haven’t you had your soldiers slit my throat? It cannot be that they are afraid of me, as they had no such qualms about attacking Damianos. Then why? Your soldiers are all armed. At best, I might stick one with a dinner knife before I am overwhelmed. You cannot value your soldiers’ lives so highly as that—after all, you will have to kill them when this is over, to preserve your secret.”

He was gratified to see a few of the men exchange glances. They were not so devoted as Kastor believed. Laurent could use that, but he needed time.

Kastor shook his head. “My soldiers are proud to serve me; I have no fear of their betrayal. But you are more—or perhaps less—fortunate than Damianos. My supporter in Vere was very particular in his demands: He does not want it to be quick.”

That was a foolish indulgence on Reynard’s part, allowing revenge to overcome logic. Undoubtedly, he wished for Laurent to suffer more, but as long as he remained alive and conscious, he would have a chance at escaping. If Kastor was half as clever as he wanted to believe he was, he would have gagged Laurent from the first.

No one was coming to rescue them, that was clear enough. He could only hope that Lazar had been able to bring Nicaise to Paschal, and that it was not too late to aid him. If he lived, he could bring word to Auguste about what had happened.

It was a contingency plan, to be certain, but not one that Laurent preferred. He would much rather that he and Damen survived this encounter...somehow.

“What do you mean to do now?” Laurent asked. “You would commit fratricide, and compound it with regicide. This grief will kill Theomedes, and you know it. All of this, to sit the throne? Anyone willing to go to such lengths for a crown does not deserve to wear it. And you won’t—not for long. Do you think you will be allowed to keep Akielos? When word reaches Vere that I am dead, my brother will demand satisfaction. You might keep the fortress at Marlas, but Delpha will fall before winter. You will lose Sicyon and Mellos before a year’s time. Two summers hence, your body will hang from the gates, and Akielos will belong to Vere.”

“Unless your brother isn’t king any longer,” Kastor said quietly.

Laurent let the chill of those words pass through him without a shudder. “You think my uncle will not do the same and more? My brother will only kill you; Reynard will torture you, force you to confess to our murders and countless others, and when he finally executes you, your own people will tear you to pieces. End this, now, and I am sure Damen will show you greater mercy than that.”

Fear flickered behind Kastor’s eyes, but resignation followed. He was committed to this course, and Laurent’s words would not sway him. He turned away. “Bind him,” he said, flicking a hand to one of the soldiers. “Bring them down the stairs.”

A trio of soldiers stepped forward to bind Laurent’s hands, so nervous that he expected they would run him through should he so much as cough. They relaxed once he was bound, shoving him roughly towards the door.

“What do we do with him?” one of the other soldiers asked, standing beside Damen.

Kastor did not look back. “Carry him. Or drag him, if you have to. The path to the royal dock is clear; I have seen to it.”

“Ah,” Laurent said. “Do you mean to throw us into the sea, and hope that our bodies are devoured by sharks and serpents?”

Kastor didn’t answer, which was all that Laurent had expected.

A pair of soldiers grasped Damen around his shoulders and his waist, and Laurent’s heart skipped with relief when Damen groaned.

“Quiet him,” Kastor snapped.

A soldier grabbed the bottle of wine from the table and poured a measure of it into Damen’s mouth. He spluttered on it, coughing, but in a moment his struggles subsided.

Laurent judged that it was less wine than had been in Nicaise’s cup, and Damen was twice Nicaise’s weight at least. It would not be enough to kill him—most likely.

The soldiers hefted Damen’s body and carried him out into the hall. At a rough prod from behind, Laurent followed.

He had no doubt that the soldiers had been ordered to kill him immediately if he raised any kind of fuss, and furthermore he doubted that there was anyone near enough to hear him if he shouted. The thick stone walls that had hidden their trysts from eavesdroppers would also hide their distress.

The harbor beneath the palace was abandoned, lit only by a handful of torches. The stillness was unnatural, broken only by the slap of little waves against the sides of the three-masted ship that bobbed at anchor.

Away in the distance, beyond the mouth of the cavern, lightning flashed.

Laurent was marched up the gangplank and on board the ship, where the end of his rope was lashed to a spar above his head. Damen was deposited on the deck without ceremony, but he was near enough for Laurent to see him breathing.

Then Kastor’s soldiers drew up the anchor and sailed them out into the darkness of the harbor beyond. Thick clouds covered the moon, and all the lights on the ship were shrouded. He wondered how they were navigating, or if they even cared. Once they were out in the depths, Kastor would be able to toss them overboard. Bound as he was, Laurent would not even be able to swim to Damen before he sank beneath the waves.

Despair threatened, but he straightened his back, his shoulders creaking with the strain. The lighting grew brighter and more frequent, stabbing down into the sea a league or more ahead of them. The sound of the thunder began to roll across the waves, a low rumble that was nearly constant. This storm was at least as fierce as the one that had struck before the Midsummer Games, and Damen had told him, hadn’t he? The storms are not dangerous unless you are at sea.

After an indeterminate amount of time that felt like hours and only moments, a soldier released Laurent’s rope from the spar and shoved him towards the rail. Laurent resisted, a little. He had no plan in place, no way to save himself and Damen together if they were pushed overboard...

But lashed to the side of the ship was a little dinghy, with a mast and sail that could be raised by sailors escaping shipwreck. Perhaps Kastor was regretting his decision—or he merely did not have the conviction necessary to order his soldiers to finish them off.

Damen was carelessly dumped into the bottom of the little boat. His head landed gently on the rolled canvas of the furled sail, and Laurent nearly suspected one of the soldiers to have done so on purpose.

But in the next moment he was shoved into the boat alongside Damen. He kept his feet, but barely.

“Sit,” Kastor said, appearing by the rail.

Laurent raised his chin. “If you mean to slit my throat, you may do it while I stand.”

The soldier beside him simply kicked his legs out from under him, and Laurent dropped to the floor of the boat in an ungainly heap.

“You could have gone easily, if you’d drunk the wine,” Kastor said.

“Akielon wine is not to my taste.”

His bound hands were pulled back, lashed to the cleat at the rear of the little boat. Kastor leaned over the rail. “You went sailing with my brother and were caught in a storm—a tragedy, to be certain. And you were right, when you said that it might be the death of King Theomedes,” Kastor said, with a mocking frown. “But between the two of us, I will tell you: his death will be swifter and easier than yours.”

He pulled a knife from his belt, and Laurent ducked away, but Kastor only used it to slash the rope tying the little boat to the side of the ship. The taut rope came apart at the barest touch of the blade, and the boat dropped down into the sea with a bone-jarring impact. It bobbed in the water, nearly capsized, and then righted itself by luck alone.

Almost immediately, the dark bulk of Kastor’s ship began to recede, a silhouette against the night. Whether the ship was moving back towards the harbor, or the little boat was moving further out to sea, there was no knowing. The wind picked up, beginning to pluck at the ends of Laurent’s hair and the laces of his clothing.

The swells of the sea began to rise, rocking the boat side to side, and Laurent fought a surge of what might have been seasickness and might have been panic. They were at the mercy of the sea and the storm, and he did not know when—or if—Damen might awaken. It might be more merciful if he did not.

Laurent pushed the thought aside with a wordless snarl and twisted his wrists, trying to find some slack in the ropes. The rough fiber tore at his wrists below the fabric of his sleeves, but he did not stop. If Damen did not wake, if he could not help them, then Laurent would have to do it himself, no matter the cost—

A different sound reached his ears, and Laurent paused, his heart pounding in his ears.

Above the grumble of approaching thunder, Damen groaned.

 

* * *

 

Damen woke to a headache worse than the cruelest hangover of his life. The floor shifted dizzyingly beneath him, and it was all he could do to stumble to the rail before clinging to it and retching over the side.

He gripped the rail after the spasms had passed, heaving in deep breaths. At least he’d had the presence of mind to recognize that he was on a ship—no, a boat, and a very small one at that. He dimly registered the indignity, as he had never been seasick before.

But how had he come to be on a boat? He did not remember setting sail, or indeed anything since...

The ringing in his ears began to fade, and he heard a voice. “Damen.”

Clutching the low rail for balance, Damen turned and found Laurent sitting at the stern of the little boat, his hands clasped behind him.

There appeared to be two of him, a prospect for which the world was entirely unprepared. Damen tried to focus and was assailed with another wave of dizziness. “What happened? My head, I can’t— I can’t see right.”

“Then close your eyes and listen to me,” Laurent said calmly. “We were attacked, at the palace. Rebel soldiers poisoned Nicaise and hit you over the head. They rowed us out onto the Ellosean Sea and dropped us on the edge of a storm.”

“Who? Were they Patran? Vaskian? Veretian?”

There was a heartbeat’s pause. “They bound my hands to the cleat behind me, and I cannot get myself loose. Can you untie me?”

Damen did not fail to notice Laurent’s evasion; the very fact of his politeness was as much a tell as anything else. But his head hurt, and the fact that someone had tied Laurent’s hands was more than enough to occupy his mind.

The sea was rough and growing rougher, sending spray over the gunwale of the tiny boat, and Damen’s blurred vision did not help matters. But he made his careful way to the stern of the boat where Laurent sat.

Their weight at the stern was nearly enough to capsize the little boat, but Damen kept his movements slow and careful, and they steadied. He had to reach around Laurent, to find the ropes by feel instead of sight. Laurent rested his head against Damen’s shoulder, in relief or exhaustion Damen did not know. In any other situation he would have been delighted to put his arms around Laurent, to feel his breath against his neck.

He traced the line of the rope from Laurent’s wrists to the cleat—that was the first priority. If he could get that knot loose, then Laurent could turn, and he could see the ropes.

He found the end of the rope and eased it back through the knot, and it came undone. Laurent turned so that his back was to Damen, and Damen set to work on the knot that had been used to bind his wrists together. It had not been done gently; his cuffs were torn by the rough fibers and the ropes were damp and sticky.

Damen lifted his hand, frowning, and a flash of lightning illuminated the smear of blood on his fingers. His heart stuttered in his chest.

“Laurent, are you hurt?”

“No.”

“You’re bleeding.”

“I tried to loosen the ropes,” he said, unconcerned. “You did warn me that sailors’ knots were complicated.”

Damen swallowed back rage and pain and continued working the ends of the rope loose. A few cold drops of rain hit the back of his neck, and the thunder grew ever louder. The storm was nearly upon them.

Finally the rope came loose, and Laurent let out an involuntary groan as he was able to pull his shoulders forward for the first time in hours. “Thank you,” he said. He gathered up the rope into a neat coil and set it in the stern, and then he began to tear a strip of cloth from the tail of his long shirt. “Lucky, isn’t it, that I have so much extra fabric?”

Precious few things about the situation could be called fortunate; nevertheless, Laurent’s clothing was one of them. If they survived the storm, he would not burn so badly under the blazing sun, and the close-woven fabric of his jacket might serve to catch water, so they would not die of thirst...

Laurent was winding the strip of cloth awkwardly around one wrist. “Can you help me tie it?”

Damen blinked rain out of his eyes and bent down. If he closed one eye, it was easier to focus. He took the ends of first one strip, then the other, and bound Laurent’s bleeding wrists as gently as he could.

When it was done, Laurent flexed his wrists and nodded. “That will do. We need to raise the mast. Do you know how?”

“Yes, but not yet,” Damen said. He shook his head and immediately stopped, as it seemed to set off a series of hammerblows inside his skull. “If the mast is struck by lightning, we will be lost. And if the storm-wind changes too suddenly, the sail can break the mast, or capsize us. If there are oars, we might row ourselves towards the edge of the storm, but otherwise we will be at the mercy of the waves.”

There were oars at the bottom of the boat, beneath the mast, but between Damen’s dizziness and Laurent’s damaged wrists, they could make little process. When morning came, presuming they lived to see it, they could raise the sail and address the question of where they were and where they needed to go.

The rain began to fall in earnest then, soaking them in an instant. Lightning flashed around them, stabbing down into the water with distressing closeness, and the thunder drowned out any hope of speech. The boat rode out swells that were higher than Damen was tall, spinning and diving but never taking enough water to sink. All they could do was brace themselves in the bottom of the boat, curled together, and wait for the worst of it to end.

The sky brightened by degrees, but the storm continued unabated through much of the morning. Near what Damen thought might be noon, the storm began to fade. The rain lightened and then stopped entirely, and the thunder began to fade into the distance. Damen focused on the direction of the storm—they often came in from the western sea before reaching Ios, so it was possible that the storm was now fading to the east.

Possible, but not certain. If he guided them the wrong way, they would die of hunger or thirst on the open sea, never seeing land again.

Laurent shivered. The sun was perhaps an hour from rising, and it would be another hour still before it brought any warmth with it. Strange, that the heat that had troubled Laurent in Ios was what they both longed for, now.

Damen squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again. Everything still blurred and doubled, and his head ached when he tried to focus on any one object, but there would be time to worry about that later—provided either of them survived long enough to see later.

“Come, help me raise the mast,” he said. If Laurent kept moving, he would warm up more quickly, and it would distract them both from their relative helplessness. There was a great deal Damen did not know about what had happened to them, and he wanted Laurent to tell him—but first, they needed a way to control their boat.

Damen was able to do most of the lifting; Laurent was the one who centered the mast in the iron ring and secured it in place. Damen tied half the knots with his eyes closed, trusting the feel of the rope in his hands better than the lies his eyes were telling him.

 As soon as the mast was stepped, and the sail attached, Damen felt a weight leave his shoulders. The awful helplessness had passed like the storm; they would be able to make their way to the shore now.

The gray sky and the late hour of the morning made it impossible to tell their direction by the sun, and they had neither compass nor sextant to determine their position in any other wise. But the wind was strong enough to fill a sail, and anything seemed better than drifting.

 “Nicaise,” Damen began. “The last I remember is that he...fell ill. Is he—?”

“I don’t know,” Laurent said quietly. “The poison was intended for us, not a boy of thirteen. Even watered, it was still strong. If Lazar was able to bring him to Paschal, then perhaps he will be all right. But if they were waylaid as we were, there is no knowing what might have become of him.”

The thought of Nicaise succumbing to poison was nearly enough to send Damen retching to the rail again. He was a brat, yes, but he would grow out of that. He deserved the chance to grow out of it. To distract himself from the thought, he adjusted the sail again, to catch the breeze better.

“Where are we going?”

“A good question, and one that would be a great deal easier to answer if I knew where we were.”

Laurent shrugged. “I cannot tell you much. There were no stars, and no lights that I saw anywhere around us. We sailed out of that little royal harbor and into the edge of the storm, but that is all I know.”

“Well, we did not run aground at Isthima, and the royal harbor faces west, so I suppose we are somewhere in the middle of the Ellosean Sea. If we sail north, we will either land in Vere or Akielos, depending on how far the rebels carried us out to sea, and how far the storm has blown us.”

“How long will it take?”

Damen shook his head and winced. He would have to stop doing that, until this dizziness passed. “It’s difficult to say. From Isthima, it is two days straight north into Akielos. But the shore curves to the northwest, and it might take us three days or more if we have drifted.”

“That is a long while to be without water.”

Damen nodded. It might be quickest to sail east, back to Ios, but he did not know what sort of welcome awaited them there. He thought he remembered a face among the soldiers, a face he had known his whole life—but surely he was wrong.

Damen closed his eyes. “Was he there?”

“Who?”

“Laurent, don’t. Was he there?”

“Yes. I tried to talk him out of this plan, but he would not hear me. It seems that my uncle has promised him your throne.”

“In exchange for ridding him of you,” Damen finished.

“Yes. Fortunately, my uncle’s command was that I suffer before dying, so Kastor did not kill me outright—an error on his part, certainly. He could have killed me immediately and told my uncle all sorts of lurid tales about my suffering.”

“Then we can still count ourselves fortunate,” Damen said drily.

The first day and night passed quickly enough; the second was much slower. Damen’s headache had not improved, and they were both feeling pangs of hunger and thirst. They could perhaps contrive to catch a fish or two, tomorrow. It would be unpleasant to eat them cold and raw, but they would survive. Water would be the hardest part. If only he had been able to think more clearly during the storm, he might have used the sail to catch the water...

They did not talk much throughout the day. When Damen tried, his dry throat rasped painfully, and what was there to say, anyway? His own half-brother had tried to kill them both, and who knew what he was doing now in the capital, with only Theomedes, bedridden and ill, to check him.

Did his father think he was dead?

As day faded into evening, Laurent spoke. “I am sorry.”

Damen looked up.

“I wanted you to know that. If we do not reach land...I would not wish to die without apologizing.”

“For what?”

“My uncle is the reason for all of this—everything from Orlant’s death to our current predicament. It is Vere’s fault, and mine, that we have come to this.”

“No, I will not hear this again. It is not your fault. If it is as you say, if your uncle has been working to convince Kastor to turn on me, then it has been the work of months or years. It would have happened just this way without you, and I would not have seen it coming.”

Laurent smiled faintly. “To be fair, you did not see this coming, either.”

“No, but you tried to warn me. I only did not want to listen.”

“Perhaps.”

Damen rose and adjusted the sail. Their speed increased marginally, enough to stir the ends of his hair as they skimmed over the swells.

“And I am not sorry,” he said, sitting down once more. “Whatever happens now, I have never been so happy as I was these last weeks with you.”

Laurent reached out and covered Damen’s hand with his own as the shrouded sun sank below the horizon, leaving them in darkness.

 

The sky cleared late in the night, and the surface of the sea reflected the starlight until it looked like they were sailing through the stars themselves. It was beautiful and eerie.

Damen frowned. He closed his eyes for a slow ten-count, and then opened them again. There was something, far away to their north. Like a slice of darkness amid the stars, and something glowing golden, flickering and fading and returning. Land?

Laurent had begun to doze, and Damen was loath to wake him, but he needed to be certain. He reached down and shook him by the shoulder.

Laurent came awake slowly, reluctantly. “Hm?”

“Tell me if I am seeing true. Is that a light before us?”

Laurent climbed to his feet and stood carefully beside Damen, keeping their boat balanced. Damen pointed ahead of them, remembering how he had done so weeks before, to point out the white columns of the Kingsmeet.

“Yes,” Laurent said. “I think it might be.”

There was no question of turning aside; they would not survive another day and a night, and if there was a light then there might be a village, or some traveler who at least might share a sip from a waterskin. Damen steered them towards the starless scrap of land, and in an hour he was certain: it was not one of the small, rocky islands that lay in the Ellosean Sea, but the shore of the continent itself. Whether this was Vere or Akielos he could not say, but he hoped it was a friendly shore.

He reefed the sail when the current began to pull them northward. The shore loomed up out of the darkness, rocky and steep, but better than a sheer cliff-face. This close to the shore, the sail would be more of a danger than a help.

“Brace yourself,” Damen said, gripping the rail with one hand and reaching back to catch Laurent’s hand with the other.

The little boat ran aground with a vicious jolt that threw them both to their knees. There was a sharp snap from somewhere below, and water began to well up between the floorboards.

“Just as well we won’t need this anymore,” Damen said.

The boat was wedged firmly between two rocks. Laurent climbed out onto the shore and held out a hand to help Damen. But dizzy or not, he was determined not to require aid. He ignored Laurent’s hand and followed him out of the boat, landing on his knees on a sharp, pebbled shore.

The breeze brought the smell of fish from the west, where the spidery shape of a small dock showed against the stars. Before them lay the dark, jumbled rooftops of a village. Damen climbed to his feet, and they made their way into the village.

It was late—there was no knowing how late, as there was no moon, and Damen could not fix his eyes on the stars long enough to take note of their positions. But the bake-house was dark, so it was not very near morning. There was no one in the streets, and even the long, low house that seemed to be a tavern was locked up and silent.

There was a well in the center of the town square, and Damen sent the bucket down, uncaring of the echoing clatter. He handed the dipper to Laurent, who took a single swallow before returning it to him. The first mouthful he drew from the bucket was the sweetest thing he had ever tasted. They shared out a little more of the water that way, just enough to quiet the worst of the ache in their throats.

They could knock on the tavern door, Damen supposed, but they had no coin and no excuse for their late arrival. But even sleeping in the square seemed pleasant, compared to endless hours on the shifting deck of their little boat.

“Here.” Laurent pointed up at a painted wooden sign hanging over the eave of a house. In both Veretian and Akielon, it proclaimed the inhabitant to be a physician.

Damen sighed with relief. “Good. In the morning, we’ll know where to go.”

“We’re not waiting until morning.” Laurent approached the door, and Damen caught his arm.

“Stop. We can’t just wake people in the middle of the night.”

Laurent gave him a level look, then lifted his free hand and pounded on the door. “Hello?” he called in Veretian. “Is anyone there? Hello? We need help!”

Damen flinched at the noise. “You’ll wake the entire village.”

“Good. Then we’ll be able to get someone to—”

The door swung open, revealing a middle-aged woman in a quilted dressing gown. “What’s all this?” she demanded.

Laurent’s voice turned high and panicky. “Please, we were sailing and we got caught in a storm, and the beam, it came loose and it hit him. He wouldn’t wake up for the longest time, please, we have coin, you have to help him.”

“I have to, do I?” she echoed thoughtfully. “Very well. Come in, both of you, before you rouse the whole village.”

She ushered them inside, where a single lamp was burning on a table. A chess set lay beside it, clearly in the middle of a game. Rustling from elsewhere in the house suggested that they were not alone, that someone else had been woken by their arrival.

The woman lit another lamp, brightening the room, and gestured to the table in the room’s center. “Go on and sit down. You both look like you’ll fall down in a moment if you don’t.”

Damen collapsed gratefully into a chair. Days without food or water had worsened his headache, and every movement seemed to echo painfully.

“I can pay,” Laurent said again, sitting at a table. “I have coin.”

“Yes, you said that before. Let’s see what needs to be done with you first, aye?” She reached for his hands, but Laurent drew back and pointed to Damen.

“He’s the one who needs help. The wooden part, that the sail is tied to—”

“The mast?”

“No, I...it’s the part that you move, to catch the wind.”

“The boom.”

That, yes! The storm blew up and it caught the sail and it came around and hit him.”

The physician turned to face Damen. “Can you talk to me, son?” she asked.

“Yes,” Damen said, rousing himself. “It’s just he usually talks enough for the both of us.”

She laughed. “I see. Buck up, this will hurt a bit.” Without further warning, she began pressing at his head with firm, practiced hands. Damen winced, and stars sparked at the edge of his vision when her fingertips pressed above his temple.

She drew back, nodding. “Well, that’s quite a lump you have there, and I’ve no doubt it rattled your brains a bit. But you’ve not cracked your skull, or you’d have screamed just then and likely fainted. That’s good.”

“But I can’t see properly, how am I going to—” Damen cut himself off before he could say something damning.

“Seeing two of everything, I expect?”

“Yes.”

“Aye, I thought so. It’s not uncommon, with a blow to the head. Your vision will improve as your body heals. Now, how did you come to be off our shore here? This village is quite a ways from anywhere that you’d see young men dressed like that.” She nodded to Laurent.

Damen stiffened, hoping that Laurent had some sort of plan. They couldn’t reveal themselves. If Kastor found out that they had survived, it would put the whole village at risk.

Before either of them could speak, a door leading deeper into the house opened, and a woman stepped out of the kitchen with a tray in her hands. She set it down on the table and pointed at the pair of kettles. “That one’s boiled water, and the other is tea,” she said. “Thought you might need both.”

The physician smiled up at her. “Thank you, dear.”

Laurent tipped his head to the side, looking back and forth between them. “Is she your pet?”

“She is my wife,” the physician responded.

Damen cleared his throat. “Forgive him. He is...naïve in the ways of life beyond court.”

The physician’s wife smiled. “I see. We were all young once. I’m Bette, and this is Rissa. She does the healing, and I remind her to eat.”

Rissa looked up at her. “You do a great deal more than that, besides.”

Bette leaned down and pressed a kiss to the top of Rissa’s head. “Call for me if you need anything, love.” She slipped back into the house, leaving them alone once more.

“Court, did you say?” Rissa asked lightly. “The pair of you are a long way from home.”

“We were summering at Fortaine,” Laurent said offhand. “Guion’s youngest son is a friend of mine.”

Friend was certainly a strain on the truth, but the rest was plausible enough. Aimeric had spent enough time at court to make friends among the nobility and their pets. Laurent reached for the kettle and a teacup with the carelessness of any spoiled young man.

Damen cleared his throat. Laurent looked up at him and sat back, casting his eyes down. “Sorry, that was rude, wasn’t it?”

“Only a bit,” Rissa said. “But you’re welcome to a cup of tea. Bette makes enough for four people even when we don’t have guests.”

Laurent poured a cup of tea and passed it to Damen. The second, he poured for Rissa, and the third he cradled gingerly in his own hands.

Damen nearly upset his teacup when he reached for it—his blurred vision was causing new problems all the time, it seemed. He sipped at the tea and felt some of the hollowness in his stomach start to fade.

“Could you tell us the name of this village?” Damen asked. “We do not know how far we drifted.”

“You’re a fair bit east of where you left, I’m afraid. This is the village of Cyprial, three days’ ride from the border with Vere.”

“We’re in Akielos now?” Laurent’s eyes widened. “But we can’t be in Akielos, we aren’t allowed to cross the border!”

“I imagine a shipwreck is a reasonable excuse,” Rissa said comfortingly. “And now you’re done with your tea, we need to see to those hands.”

Rissa unwound the clumsy wrappings, which were now somewhat worse for the wear. She bent her head low to look over the injuries, speaking in a soft voice that Damen couldn’t quite make out. He blinked, unsure if he had ever felt so tired in all his life.

Laurent’s response was louder, straddling the line between offended and smug. “He didn’t hurt me,” he said archly. “He never hurts me. We were playing, that’s all. He was a pirate captain, and he took me for ransom, and—but then he got hurt and I had to get my hands free, any way that I could. I don’t care that it hurt.”

“Mm-hm.” Rissa dabbed a salve on the worst scratches and cuts and wrapped them in fresh bandages. “You’ll do, I think. For now, the two of you need to rest. There are pallets in the back room, for patients that can’t be moved. We’ve no one else just now, so you’re welcome to sleep there. I’m sure it won’t be up to your standards,” she said, with a wry smile at Laurent, “but it’s better than the floor.”

“We’re very grateful,” Damen said. He rose from his chair, gripping the back until he felt steady again.

Laurent stood as well, and laid a silver piece on the table. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said.

Rissa gave him a steady look. “You’re full of surprises, aren’t you, young man?”

She led them to the back room, where two rows of pallets lay on the floor, with blankets folded neatly at the foot of each one. Laurent immediately dragged one pallet closer to its neighbor, to make one larger pallet, and then he spread the blankets over them to make a single bed.

Damen wanted to thank him, for that small gesture and a dozen others, but the words wouldn’t come. He lay down on their pallet and was somehow unsurprised when Laurent lay down beside him, curling against him. They both could have used fresh clothing and a long soak in the baths, but it was an unlooked-for comfort in their current predicament.

“Where did you get that coin?” Damen asked, half-asleep already. “You didn’t steal it, did you?”

Laurent shook his head; Damen felt the motion against his shoulder. “I keep a dozen coins sewn into the lining of my belt. You saw the one I gave to the Vaskian rider, the one that Aimeric tried to bribe.”

“Yes, I suppose. But why?”

“Young princes can be ransomed for a great deal of money. When I was a child, my father thought that I could use the coin to bribe a kidnapper, should the worst occur. He always said that the men at the top were the ideologues, but no one else could afford to be.”

“Mm.” He was warm, and comfortable, and holding Laurent. It was nearly enough to send him to sleep, but—

“What happened in the palace? You said my brother was there, but I need to know what he said, what he did.”

“You need to rest,” Laurent said. “You heard Rissa. Go to sleep.”

Laurent.”

“What good will it do to tell you now? You cannot hope to do anything until morning, at least. Just rest.”

Damen closed his eyes.

 

The little town was quiet when Damen woke. It was well after sunrise, and Damen was pleased enough to let the morning pass them by, so long as he could keep holding Laurent as he was.

Laurent stirred and opened his eyes. Damen watched a series of emotions cross his face—surprise and pleasure at waking up beside Damen, followed by the sobering memory of how they had come to be here.

When they rose at last, they found the little house was empty. But breakfast had been left for them, and the teapot was still warm. They shared out the soft corn-cakes and boiled eggs, and Damen began to feel somewhat better about their situation. They were perhaps a week from Ios overland, and less if they could persuade a local fisherman to part with his boat.

“Will you tell me now?” Damen asked. “What my brother said to you?”

“What more is there to say? It will not make this easier.”

“I need to know.”

“Stubborn.” Laurent picked up a piece from the chess set on the table, sliding it to a new position. He did not look up when he spoke. “After he let one of his soldiers nearly kill you with a fireplace poker, he told me about what my uncle had promised him. I tried to tell him that my uncle would betray him, and he may even have believed me, but he was set on his course. He might believe that he can outwit my uncle, should Reynard make a play to take Akielos.”

“He’s wrong,” Damen said.

“Yes. Then they bound my hands behind me and carried us off to the ship.”

Damen looked at him for a moment, as steadily as he could. “You are not telling me everything.”

“Perhaps I don’t remember everything,” Laurent shot back. “It was not my finest hour.”

Nor had it been Damen’s. To be taken out of the fight by a soldier with a fireplace tool...it was not particularly worthy of him.

But that was done now, and there was no point in dwelling on it. Damen turned his thoughts back to Ios. “When we go back home, we will have to speak with my father. It will not be easy to convince him of Kastor’s treachery, but his sentence will not be too harsh. After all, there is no lasting harm done.”

“No,” Laurent said uneasily. “Not as yet.”

A few moments later, the door opened, and Bette and Rissa stepped inside. They were silent and unsmiling.

“What’s wrong?” Laurent asked, his wide-eyed pet act back in place. “Why do you look so somber?”

“There’s news from the market,” Bette said. “King Theomedes is dead.”

Damen’s stomach gave a sick jolt. It couldn’t be true—he had been improving when Damen had seen him last, regaining his strength.

“Good,” he heard Laurent say sharply. “I have family in the border villages, and every summer there were raids. They always said the king had no part in it, but I know they were lying.”

Rissa frowned. “That’s as it may be. But it still a harsh thing to cheer the death of a man.”

“And I would not repeat that sentiment beyond these walls,” Bette added. “There are those who would not take kindly to it. Now, the silver coin you gave me was overpayment, and I think that you know it. We took the liberty of finding you fresh clothing to wear. You’ll want to wash first, I expect. There’s a tub in the back room, and the well behind the house is not yet dry.”

Rissa handed a stack of clothing to Laurent, and then she left them alone to wash.

As soon as the door was closed, Damen turned on Laurent, grief igniting into fury in the space of a heartbeat. “How could you say such a thing? That you’re glad that he’s dead, after everything—”

“I had to, Damen. The look on your face... If either of them had even glanced at you in that moment, they would have known everything. Every bit of grief was etched on your face. I needed to draw their attention, so I acted like a spoiled Veretian brat. I wish I had not had to say it.” He reached out. “Damen, I am so sorry.”

The anger went out of Damen like a snuffed candle. He nodded, unable to trust his voice. You always wanted to be king, a treacherous voice whispered in his mind. But not like this, never like this.

“You should be more careful,” Damen said, forcing his mind back to the present. “Most Akielons would have challenged you for insulting their King that way.”

“Yes, but our hosts aren’t Akielon, are they? Of course they are now, but their Veretian is perfect—they’ve lived here since Delpha was still Delfeur.”

Leave it to Laurent, to notice a detail like that. Damen rubbed at his forehead, where the headache was building again.

The brass-bound tub and well-water made for a cold bath, but it was a relief to be clean again. The clothing that Rissa and Bette had found for them was neither the chiton of Akielos nor the tight, laced clothing of Veretian court, but something between the two—loose tunics and pants, of a size to suit each of them.

Laurent looked strange, dressed in peasants’ clothes, and Damen imagined he looked equally odd. Still, it was a relief to be free of their old, salt-stiff clothes, and now they could devote their time to planning how to take back Akielos.

But first, they would have to leave Cyprial. Despite Bette and Rissa’s kindness, they could not stay here.

They emptied the tub and returned to the front room, where Bette and Rissa were talking to each other in low voices over a cup of tea.

“Feeling better, gentlemen?” Rissa said, rising from her seat. She fetched an object down from a high shelf. “As for you,” she said to Damen, “your sight will improve as your body heals. But until then, this may ease the headaches.” She dropped a soft leather eyepatch into Damen’s hand.

“Let me help.” Laurent took they eyepatch and settled the band gently across Damen’s brow. “There. Now you look quite the bandit,” he said cheerfully, and he pressed a kiss to Damen’s cheek. Damen’s face heated at the casual affection, though he knew it was only part of Laurent’s act.

Bette brought a fresh kettle into the front room and poured tea for all of them. She held Damen’s cup out to him.

“Here you are, Exalted.”

“Thank you.” Damen took the cup. He’d brought it halfway to his lips before he saw Laurent’s expression and realized what Bette had called him.

He set the cup down with a sigh. “How did you know?”

“Did I not say? Theomedes’ death was not the only news. It was said that he died in grief, after learning that Prince Damianos had been lost at sea, along with Prince Laurent of Vere. We thought to ourselves that we had two shipwrecked young men in our care who had been rather vague regarding the details of their accident. And one has a decidedly Akielon look about him, despite his perfect Veretian accent.”

“A perfect accent,” Damen echoed, turning to Laurent. “Did you hear that?”

“I heard,” Laurent said, half-smiling.

Bette shook her head. “I do apologize for the trick. It was underhanded of us.”

“No,” Damen said. “We should have been honest with you, but we did not know what news had come to you, or whom we could trust.”

“Did you tell anyone else?” Laurent’s voice was sharp. “Does anyone else know that we’re here?”

Rissa eyed him coolly. “It’s a wonder we ever took you for anything less than a prince, with that attitude. No, neither Bette nor I make a habit of sharing our patients with the world. Oft as not, they have reasons for their secrecy.”

“What happens now?” Damen asked, turning to Laurent. “What will Vere do, when the news reaches the capital?”

“We will go to war,” he said heavily. “Auguste will have no choice. Whether or not the people care for me, pride alone will demand retribution.”

“Pride, and love,” Damen added. He could not imagine Auguste’s grief, somehow made all the worse by the fact that he had been deceived and had no need to grieve.

Bette rose from the table. “Very well, then. How can we help?”

 

Late that night, they lay curled on the mat together, but sleep would not come. Damen held himself still and tried not to disturb Laurent, but then Laurent shifted and sighed, revealing himself to be as wakeful as Damen.

“My father is dead,” Damen said softly. Saying it aloud made it feel true, an ache deep in his chest that would never heal.

Laurent turned to face him, a silhouette in the darkness. “I know.”

He opened his mouth to speak again, but no words came.

Laurent reached out to him. “Damen.”

He drew in one shuddering breath, and then another. And if Laurent felt the tears that slipped down Damen’s cheeks, he was kind enough not to speak of them.

 

* * *

 

Two days later, they were outfitted for a journey north through Delpha and into Vere. Damen’s first thought, that they could meet Nikandros at Marlas, had been countered almost immediately. Nikandros would not be there—he would be riding to Ios even now, mourning the loss of his king and his best friend at once.

It was decided, in the course of several quiet but intense arguments, that they would ride into Vere, to meet Auguste and his army before they could cross the border. Once they averted war on that front, they could turn their attention to retaking Ios.

“Take it slow,” Rissa ordered. “I know you’ll both want to reach King Auguste as quickly as possible, but you need to be mindful—particularly you, Exalted,” she added. “The headaches will improve, and your vision will heal, but you have to rest yourself.”

Damen promised that he would, but everyone in the room knew it for the lie that it was. Rissa tucked packets of herbs into their kit, with strict instructions that Laurent was to brew a tea with it and make Damen drink it each night before they slept.

They had a tent, a bow, a pair of horses, and enough food to get them well into Veretian territory. They could hunt or trade for whatever else they needed.

In the pale light just before dawn, they set out. No one, save Bette and Rissa, had any knowledge that they had ever come to Cyprial at all.

Part of Damen chafed against the thought of riding away from Akielos, where Kastor would take the throne that should be his. He knew that his father’s body lay in state now, prepared for the funeral rites that would take place as soon as the kyroi arrived. And even though he knew that the path they were on now would save lives, it still felt wrong.

The only consolation in the whole mess was being alone with Laurent. They slept and woke and rode and ate together, and when they laid out their bedrolls in the evening, they took comfort in the fact that neither of them was alone, too exhausted to do anything but hold each other.

They crossed into Vere on the afternoon of the third day, avoiding the notice of border patrols on either side of the line. Damen’s headaches were beginning to improve, but progress was frustratingly slow. Laurent began calling a brief halt each day when the sun was highest, claiming that the heat was troubling him. It was a transparent excuse for granting Damen a few minutes’ rest and relief from the bright sunlight.

Nearly a week into their journey, Damen climbed down from his horse in the shade of a copse of trees. It was late afternoon, and the sun slanting down into their eyes was vicious. “We could have kept riding.”

“I’m too hot,” Laurent lied, sitting down with his back against a tree.

Damen dropped to the ground beside him. “At this speed, it will be midwinter before we reach your brother.”

“Surely not so long as that. Autumn, perhaps, but not midwinter.”

Anger sparked. Damen knew that his headache and frustration were fueling his foul mood, but he could not stop the words that spilled from him.

“We were closer to Ios from the start. We don’t even know how to find your brother’s army! And every day we ride is another day that Kastor holds my people hostage.”

“Yes? And how do you presume to take back Akielos with the two of us alone? You might gather a few hundred soldiers at Marlas, with Nikandros to lead them, but how many are in the capital awaiting orders? A thousand? Two thousand? Your brother’s soldiers would massacre us before we even came in sight of the city.”

“You do not know that.”

“Yes, I do,” Laurent snapped. “You need an army, and conveniently, my brother has one. When we meet him and explain what has happened, we can turn our attentions to Akielos. Auguste will have to absent himself to rule in Arles, but he will support you, and so will his generals.”

“Will they? How many of those generals took scars in the last war? They will not line up eagerly to be led by an Akielon.”

“They will when they realize what Theomedes’ other son will do, if he is allowed to secure his reign. There will not be peace along the border so long as Kastor rules in Akielos.”

“All the more reason why we should have turned back. Sometimes I feel like I’m nothing more than a pawn you’re moving around, playing a game that no one else can see.”

“Surely not a pawn,” Laurent said airily. “A knight, perhaps.”

Laurent.”

Laurent drew in a breath to reply and let it out in a sigh. “The die is already cast. And I don’t want to fight.”

“You always want to fight.”

“But not with you. Forgive me, it is only that I fear for what we will find, if we do not reach my brother before the fighting starts.”

Damen rubbed at his temple, where the bruised skin was still tender, more than a week later. “My head hurts, Laurent. I must ask you to say what you mean.”

“When the king of Vere leaves the capital for a length of time, he appoints a seneschal to serve in his stead. Is it the same in Akielos?”

“Yes. The kyros in Ios takes command.”

“In Vere we have no position dedicated to that role. The king appoints a trusted advisor—or a family member.”

Damen’s head gave a particularly vicious throb. “Councilor Reynard.”

“He served my father as seneschal during the last war—and since my letters have had no answer, we must assume that Auguste does not know of any reason that he should not do the same. The moment the army marched out of the palace gate, Reynard would have begun to gather what allies he may have, reinforcing his hold on the capital. And somewhere along the way, within my brother’s army or without, will be a mercenary paid to ensure that Auguste does not survive the first skirmish.”

Damen nodded. “Then we have to warn him.”

“Yes. It is too late to save your father, Damen, and for that I am truly sorry. But there might yet be time to save Auguste.”

“You could have told me this from the start.”

“I could have, but—” Laurent broke off. “Yes, you are right. I should have told you. I am not accustomed to having someone whom I can trust completely.”

It was nearer to an apology than Damen deserved. “No secrets anymore,” he said. “Not between us.”

“No secrets,” he echoed. “Will you rest for a while? We have come far enough for today, and I thought I would try to hunt for us. The way-cakes are getting somewhat stale.”

Damen was relieved, both at the prospect of rest and the thought of a change in their rations. “I’ll make our camp, then.”

Laurent removed the bow from his pack and selected a few of their arrows. “I won’t be long,” he said. He started towards the forest, stopped, and frowned. Then he turned back, kissed Damen lightly on the cheek, and set off into the trees.

 

By the time Laurent returned with a pair of rabbits, the sun was beginning to set, and Damen felt somewhat better. He helped Laurent dress their catch and roast it over a fire, and they ate in companionable quiet, their earlier argument all but forgotten.

After the sun set, Laurent vanished into the tent. Damen smothered their little fire with a few handfuls of earth, and then he followed Laurent inside.

Laurent had lit a lantern and hung it from the hook near the top of the tent pole; the interior of the tent was cast in a warm, dim glow.

Laurent sat atop his bedroll, looking down at something in his hand. When he saw Damen watching him, he held out the object.

It was a small glass vial of oil.

“I want,” Laurent began, but the words failed him.

Instead of allowing himself to consider just what Laurent wanted, Damen turned his attention to the vial itself. “You have been carrying this for a long time.”

“I had it in my pocket, that last night in Ios. I meant to ask you then, after Nicaise retired for the night. I am surprised it survived what happened after.”

“I’m still surprised that we survived it,” Damen countered. He considered the vial of oil. More than enough for a single encounter, but not enough for two, so they should put it to good use. “How do you—that is, which part would you take?”

Laurent blinked. “I had assumed you preferred the...active, rather than the passive role.”

It was the same assumption that anyone else made, upon meeting him, and Damen had never indulged his curiosity as to what the other role might entail. “That is the role I have always taken, but it is by no means the only one I will accept. If you would prefer it otherwise, you have only to say so.”

“I see. In that case, I would prefer you to take your customary role. One of us, at least, should know his part.”

“Are you certain? It is not always easy, for a first time.” Damen’s face heated, though he spoke as a warning and not out of pride.

“I am aware. I have been...practicing,” Laurent said, a flush rising on his cheeks.

“Practicing? How do you mean?”

Laurent’s flush did not fade, but he spoke steadily. “With my own fingers, at first, and later—did you know there are market stalls in your city that sell false cocks? One of the sellers even had one that she claimed was modeled after you—she called it the Exalted. It does not quite match your measure, but it served.”

Damen’s mind struggled to supply him with the image of Laurent preparing himself, alone in his rooms after he dismissed his guards for the night. “Practicing,” he echoed.

His voice must have betrayed him, because Laurent’s lips curved in a sly smile. “I was not very good at it,” he said. “I would begin, and then I would think of you inside me, and I would reach my end far too quickly.”

“You thought of me?”

“Who else?” Laurent replied. “You are the only one I have—wanted, this way. I dream about you,” he said, as though it was a confession.

At a loss for words, Damen kissed him. “Come, then. Lay your bedroll on top of mine; it will be more comfortable for the both of us that way.”

They stacked the bedrolls together, as a cushion against the hard ground beneath the tent.

Laurent was not the only one who had dreamed of this moment. In Damen’s imaginings they were always on his soft, sturdy bed, or a pile of cushions in the Veretian palace. Laurent deserved to be properly seduced, as he had deserved to be properly courted.

But propriety seemed to have abandoned them altogether. Though it was not ideal, Damen could not regret that Laurent had come to him now.

Laurent picked up the vial of oil and hesitated on the verge of handing it to Damen. “You know I have no experience to guide me.”

“No, but you have me.”

A trace of a smile crossed Laurent’s face. “Then guide me,” he said, kneeling on the bedroll before Damen.

In answer, Damen kissed him again.

Without the usual Veretian delay of knots and cords, they undressed each other quickly. Though Damen had seen Laurent revealed to him before, he never tired of the sight of him, pale and long-limbed, the tops of his shoulders kissed by the sun. He had gradually lost his reticence over the course of their brief courtship, no longer hesitant to shed his clothes in front of Damen. Damen had encouraged that, showing his appreciation for Laurent’s body in every way he knew.

He gave half a thought to using his mouth, at least to start. He had discovered that he enjoyed the act, and he had begun to know what Laurent liked best. But therein lay the danger—that he might distract them from their goal. Instead, he contented himself with a slow stroke of Laurent’s cock, just to watch the way Laurent shivered.

“Lie back,” Damen said.

He knelt in front of Laurent, subjecting himself to the open curiosity of Laurent’s gaze. He poured a generous measure of oil onto his fingertips, letting the heat of his skin warm it before reaching out. Laurent gave a quiet gasp at the first gentle press of Damen’s finger. His hips rose, and he closed his eyes when Damen shifted, pushing in further before drawing back again.

“Is this what you thought of?” Damen asked him softly. “When you were alone in your rooms, practicing?”

“I thought of little else,” Laurent admitted. “Ever since the Midsummer Games, I—oh.”

Damen pushed back inside, adding a second finger. Laurent breathed out against the stretch of it.

“Since the Games?” Damen prompted. He curled his fingers, just a bit.

Laurent swore in exceedingly filthy Veretian. “You never told me that Akielons wrestled in the nude.”

“No? I thought surely I must have mentioned it.”

“You did not.”

Damen grinned and bent forward to press a kiss to the corner of Laurent’s mouth. “An egregious oversight. How may I make amends, my lord?”

“Use your imagination,” Laurent huffed.

Damen obliged him by easing a third finger into him. Laurent’s back arched, and he gripped at the blankets as though to anchor himself.

Damen moved his fingers in slow, gentle thrusts until Laurent’s breathing steadied. “Are you well?”

Laurent nodded. “I would have you now—do not make me wait any longer.”

There was more than enough oil left for this, but Damen refused to stint. He would make this act as easy as possible for Laurent. He poured out much of the remaining oil and used it to slick his cock while Laurent watched with avid attention.

Laurent raised an eyebrow. “Well?”

Damen parted Laurent’s legs and leaned forward. He kept his movements slow and careful as he pressed inside. His body cried out to push forward, to sheathe himself in a single motion, but he reined in the urge.

Beneath him, Laurent shifted, his mouth pressed into a thin line.

“Laurent. If you would have me stop...”

He shifted and shook his head. “No. Go on, just as you are.”

After what seemed an eternity, Damen was fully inside him. Now it was his turn to gasp against the sensation of it.

“Oh—Damen.” Laurent’s hand closed on Damen’s shoulder, gripping tight. Damen closed his eyes, every ounce of will concentrated on holding still, on waiting until Laurent was ready.

Laurent rocked back against him, testing, and let out a breath. “Please,” he said.

It was a command that Damen could not have refused him. In consideration of Laurent’s lack of experience, the pace he set was almost torturously slow, easing back and forward until Laurent reached up and gripped the hair at the nape of Damen’s neck.

Enough, Damen. I am not going to break.”

Damen’s next thrust quick and rough, as though warning Laurent what he was truly asking for. In response, Laurent wrapped his legs around Damen’s hips and urged him forward.

It was to be like this, then—a competition even as they moved together. Damen found a pace and an angle that left Laurent writhing desperately against him, his breath too short for speech.

Damen gathered himself and curled one hand around Laurent’s cock. Still slick with the oil, his grip was loose enough to allow Laurent to thrust up into him, setting his own pace.

There was no one to hear them now, no fear of discovery, and Damen marked out every sound that Laurent made, determined to remember it for the rest of his life.

“Damen—Damen.”

Damen’s hips snapped forward, both of them half-lost in a rush of passion. His hand quickened on Laurent’s cock.

“Laurent—oh, come for me, dear one, let me see you, let me feel you—” He scarcely knew what language he spoke, but evidently Laurent understood him. He gave a quiet cry, and his back arched as he came.

Damen had never seen anything so beautiful. He felt his control beginning to fray, unspooling like thread from a spindle, and he buried his face in Laurent’s shoulder as he spent within him.

 

It seemed a long while later that he lifted his head. Laurent looked dazed, his sharp eyes gone gentle and distant. He made a soft sound of dismay as Damen withdrew himself and set to cleaning them up.

“Come back here,” he demanded, stretching out an arm to pull Damen closer.

“Your clothes,” Damen began.

“Forget them.”

“You’ll be cold.”

Laurent drew the blankets over them and rested his head on Damen’s shoulder. “No, I won’t,” he said.

And then they slept.

 

* * *

 

The tent was bright when Damen woke, the sun already risen. Laurent had already woken, and the tent was silent around him. Damen sat up, stretching muscles that ached pleasantly with the memory of the night before. He reached for his pack, in search of fresh clothing.

Atop his pack was a leaf of paper, folded over and weighted down by a chess piece. Damen frowned and picked it up.

You were never a knight, it read.

Damen looked down at the piece in his hand—the black king. It was the wooden piece from Rissa and Bette’s front room, but it reminded Damen of their first chess match, months ago, and what Laurent had told him. Damen’s hand tightened on the wooden chess piece.

I know how much I am willing to sacrifice to protect my king.

Laurent’s pack was gone.

Damen threw open the tent-flap, squinting against the bright sunlight. He already knew what he would find: his own horse, cropping contentedly at the grass, and Laurent’s mount nowhere in sight. Nothing else in their camp was disturbed.

He had not been taken, he had left.

The sun was already high, which meant Laurent might have four hours’ lead on him, if he left at dawn. Knowing Laurent, however, he had probably left the moment he was sure that Damen had fallen asleep.

He might be anywhere.

The bright sunlight sent a dagger of pain into Damen’s skull. He ducked back into the tent and let the flap fall closed.

He had to consider the matter logically. Every nerve in his body cried to be off after him, but he could not begin if he did not have a plan.

Whatever Laurent intended to do, it was clearly something that Damen would have disapproved, or Laurent would have told him. Or perhaps it was the slow pace that chafed at him, and he had left Damen behind like so much baggage. What choices did he have left?

He could turn back. He had wanted to free Akielos from the first, and by now, Nikandros would have returned to Marlas. Damen could meet him there, and they could solve this matter together. Nikandros might not have approved of Damen’s feelings for Laurent, but he would not deny him aid—especially not when Damen arrived on his doorstep as though returned from the dead.

But if he turned back now, each day he rode south was another day that Auguste’s army would advance, leaving Reynard with more time to reinforce his grasp on Arles. And if Laurent had another plan in mind, if he hadn’t gone after his brother to warn him, then each passing day was another chance for Reynard’s spies to have Auguste killed.

He would have to continue with their plan, then. And if he should arrive and find Laurent already there, they would have words.

 

The days blurred into one another as Damen rode across the Veretian countryside, seeking Auguste and his army. Laurent had left him most of their food, which made him worry about Laurent’s stores even as he appreciated not needing to hunt. Shooting was a nigh-impossible prospect with an eyepatch, and Damen did not have the patience for it now, anyway.

A week or more after Laurent had disappeared, Damen crested a rise and found a sea of white tents in the distance, laid out with military precision. And the peak of each tent bore the deep blue pennants of the King of Vere.

Damen rode down into the valley with little thought in his mind but finding Laurent, if he were here. But it would not do to be shot on sight by the first guard who saw his approach. With a silent apology to Rissa and Bette, he cut a jagged strip of white canvas from the edge of their tent and held it aloft, riding slowly towards the camp.

Unshaven, unwashed, and with a patch over one eye, Damen knew he bore little resemblance to the prince of Akielos. He hoped that the scrap of white cloth would be enough to keep the guards from attacking him before he could speak to them.

A pair of guards stopped him more than a furlong from the first tents. “Halt. State your business.”

“I have an urgent message for King Auguste,” Damen said in his best Veretian. He swung down from his horse. “Please, you must take me to him.”

He was striving for the tone of a messenger, not the peremptory orders of a prince, but he could tell by the guards’ shared glance that he had not convinced them.

“It concerns Prince Laurent.”

That, at least, was enough to command their attention. They efficiently stripped him of his weapons, left his horse in the paddock to graze, and led Damen through the orderly rows of tents to the high pavilion raised in the center of the camp.

One of the guards ducked his head inside. “A messenger, Your Majesty. It seems urgent.”

Damen did not wait for Auguste to summon him but stepped into the tent immediately. The guard drew back, shocked, and Auguste looked up from the table where he sat. He was dressed in mourning black and already frowning, preparing to ask who dared walk into his tent uninvited.

“Your Majesty. Auguste,” Damen began.

Auguste rose so quickly that his chair threatened to tip over. “Damianos.” Unreadable expressions crossed his face. He stepped out from behind the war table, gripping Damen’s arms hard enough to bruise. “What has become of my brother?”

Damen’s heart sank. “He is not here?” He had expected that Laurent had some other destination in mind, but it was disappointing news all the same.

“Not here. Then he is alive?”

“He lives,” Damen said. “Or he did a week ago, when we parted.”

“Sit down and tell me everything. Wait.” Auguste crossed to the front of the tent and stuck his head outside. “Leave us,” Damen heard him say.

The guards began to protest, their words muffled by the heavy canvas of the tent.

Go,” Auguste said flatly, and the guards went. He returned to the table and made to sit down, but he changed his mind and began pacing the length of the tent. “I beg you, tell me everything. We thought you were both lost.”

“We nearly were. Kastor—my brother tried to kill us both. He intended us to be shipwrecked and lost in a storm. But we were fortunate. A few days later we washed up near the Veretian border. It took us a short while to recover, and while we were there, the news came of King Theomedes’ death.”

“Then that news was true? I am sorry, Damen.”

“Yes, I...thank you. That was when we realized the true extent of Kastor’s betrayal, and that it was not his plan at all. Kastor was to take the throne in Akielos, and in grief, Vere would march to war. Anything might happen to a young king leading his army for the first time—and if some disaster should befall him, then the seneschal left behind in Arles would become king by right.”

“The seneschal—? Do you mean to say that Councilor Reynard is behind it all? How—and why?”

Damen shook his head. “I cannot tell you precisely why, but he has borne Laurent ill-will for some time now, and he is the one who stands to gain the most if some misfortune should befall you on the march. And with the Akielon throne held but weakly by Kastor, Reynard might control both nations in a year’s time.”

Auguste took a half-step backwards and collapsed neatly into his chair again. “Reynard,” he murmured.  “I cannot imagine that he would want power so desperately—but there is a great deal I seem to have failed to imagine.” He looked up. “You asked if Laurent was here. Then you do not know where he is?”

Damen shook his head. “No. I thought he might come here to warn you of the danger. Perhaps he thought you were still at the palace and is even now riding back to us. Or he means to meet you at one of the forts, if you continue.”

“Or perhaps he has come to some trouble on the road,” Auguste said grimly.

“There is no reason to suppose that.” Damen did not know whether he intended to comfort Auguste or himself.

“No? You arrive alone and injured, bearing the story of an assassination attempt. I might suppose anything, given that. What happened to your eye?”

“It is still there,” Damen reassured him, lifting the patch to demonstrate, “but since we were shipwrecked, my vision blurs and shifts, and gives me such headaches that I can barely think, let alone ride. The physician said the only treatment was time and rest, but we had to leave immediately, to warn you. I thought...I had supposed that was why he left, because he could travel faster without me.”

“Undoubtedly he wished to keep you out of further danger,” Auguste said.

Damen frowned, and Auguste shook his head, smiling for the first time since Damen had stepped into the tent.

“You cannot think me so blind as to have missed it. I know my little brother better than anyone, and he was fond of you from the start. When I sent him to Akielos with you, it was with the knowledge that you would likely remain there together—or break each other’s hearts beyond repair.”

Had Laurent’s feelings been so apparent to Auguste, even before they left Vere? Worse, had Damen been so transparent as that?

“You do not look shocked. I presume he has made you aware of his feelings?”

“I...” Damen thought on their last night on the road and immediately tried to think of something, anything else. “We had been—that is, we...”

“I’ve never seen you so inarticulate,” Auguste said. “But I can guess enough of the matter myself and do not require details.”

“We were courting, that is all.”

“As I said—the details may remain secret.”

“As should my presence here. It would be better if your soldiers do not know who I am. If rumor that Laurent or I survived should reach either of our capitals before we are ready, it may be disastrous.”

“That is fair. And you do not much resemble the Damianos that my people would know. The beard and the eyepatch make that certain enough.”

“Call me Nik,” Damen suggested. “It is a name I will recognize, at least, and I could learn to answer to it.”

Auguste nodded. “Nik, then. We will need to plan our movements—between the two of us, we might be able to predict Laurent’s next move, and to find him before he makes it. I will call a halt until we have decided. Who knows? Perhaps he will find us before then.”

 

Damen was relieved to be part of a company again, pleased to pitch in where his skills could be most helpful. He was careful to speak only a little and only when addressed, in a rough approximation of a working Akielon’s accent.

Three days after Damen’s arrival in the camp, a steward came to fetch him. He looked very put-out at being assigned such a menial duty.

“The King has summoned the Akielon to his tent,” the steward said.

This was the same man who had led Damen to his rooms in the royal wing, on his first night in Arles. They had spoken countless times since then, but today his eyes held no recognition. Damen was all but a stranger to him.

Damen made his way across the camp to Auguste’s tent. He offered his false name to the guards so that he might be announced, but they must have been told to expect him. They stepped aside and let Damen pass by into the dim, cool tent.

Auguste was doing a credible job of pacing back and forth in a tent that was only a few paces wide. When he saw Damen step into the room, his expression darkened still further. He crossed to the center of the tent and flung a piece of paper down onto the table.

“This message was brought to me an hour ago, closed with my own royal seal.”

The thick paper bore only one line. In a close, clear hand, it read—

I have the prince, and I have Arles. Come to me, and choose which one you will.

A folded lock of blond hair was fastened to the page with sealing wax.

Damen looked up. “It will be a trap, of course.”

“Oh, of course,” Auguste echoed. “But what choice do I have?”

There was never a chance that Auguste would leave Laurent to suffer at the hands of his uncle. Even if Damen had not come to warn him, Auguste could not have failed to recognize the writer of the letter, and its intent.

“Laurent would tell you not to come for him.”

“Yes. And I would ignore him if he did.”

Damen nodded. “To Arles, then.”

Chapter Text

To Nikandros, Kyros of Delpha

From a Friend

 

Nik—

I send you this letter sealed by the King of Vere’s own hand. You will not believe this easily, I know, but you may take this as a token: That the scar above your knee was not taken in battle, as you always say, but tripping over your own feet after too many cups of griva when you were nineteen.

Kastor has betrayed his people and his family, working alongside a Veretian traitor in a scheme to take over both nations. He tried to kill me, and Laurent with me, but we escaped. Now Laurent is in danger once more, and I am going to Arles with King Auguste, in the hopes of saving him. When that task is complete, I will come to you at Marlas.

Tell no one, but be ready to march on my orders. Together we will free our people.

 

Damianos I, King of Akielos

 

Damen stared at the signature, and it was not his headache that made the letters blur and swim before his eyes.

Behind him, the tent-flap opened. “The messenger is ready,” Auguste said. “Do you have your letter? –Damianos?”

He started and rose from the chair. “Yes, forgive me. It’s only that I had never signed my name that way before.”

Auguste’s hand on his shoulder was bracing. “I know how you feel, my friend. The messengers are already mounted, awaiting our orders. As soon as they are off, we can ride.”

They had decided that they would ride for Arles alone. Riding with guards or soldiers would only bring notice all along the way, and a larger group would more easily be spotted by the roving patrols. They could travel quickly and lightly, and Auguste had no sentimentality for their horses—they would be able to sell them and purchase a new pair at each town, so that their mounts would always be fresh.

It took Auguste less than a day to call his generals together and send them on to Ravenel, where they were to wait for further commands. They were not fond of this change, and they were even less pleased when Auguste explicitly forbade them from crossing the border, even as reconnaissance.

Damen, in his guise as messenger, watched from the back of the pavilion. His father would not have permitted quite so much impertinence from his commanders, but Vere was different, of course. And though they did not like the plans, they all accepted Auguste’s decisions as final.

By evening on the same day that Auguste had received Reynard’s letter, they were on their way back through Vere. They spoke little, because there was little left to say: they would ride to the palace at Arles, and they would not leave without Laurent. That much, they both knew.

Each time they came upon a village, they sold their horses in exchange for fresh mounts, overpaying just enough to overcome any reluctance on the sellers’ part, but not so much as to make their identities obvious. Akielos was going to owe Vere a heavy purse of gold by the time matters were settled.

Auguste had removed his crown in the hopes of traveling without recognition, but he kept it in his rucksack in case they encountered trouble along the way. They were just past the midpoint of their journey when Damen came back from a hunt and found Auguste sitting beside the campfire, tracing the crown’s delicate golden lines.

Auguste looked up. “Do you think he would do it? Trade Laurent’s life for the crown?”

Damen busied himself with preparing their meal, the better to avoid meeting Auguste’s eyes. “You know the answer to that.” Reynard could not be trusted to keep to his promises.

“If I thought it could save him, I would do it. But Reynard—I have always believed him one of the cleverest of my counselors; it seems I must now consider him the cleverest of my enemies. He knows that our people will not follow him, not while Laurent and I live. If he seeks the throne, he seeks our deaths.”

“Yes.” And Damen could well imagine Laurent’s response. “You know your brother would be furious to know we speak of bartering a kingdom for his life.”

Auguste smiled thinly. “He would, wouldn’t he?”

They fell into quiet then, as their dinner cooked on the small fire. When Auguste spoke, his voice was quiet. “Damen. I need you to answer me one thing truly.”

“Of course.”

“Akielons do not lie to spare others from a harsh truth.”

“Is that your question?”

“No.” Auguste stared into the firelight, his lips pressed firmly together. “When I heard that Laurent was lost, I had never felt such grief in all my life. Not after Mother died, or even Father... And now, to have hope that he is still alive—it is almost worse. Do you think that Laurent yet lives? Or has Reynard...”

It was possible. Reynard could have slit Laurent’s throat the moment he sent the messenger away. It was difficult to fathom what might drive a man like Reynard to act as he did, but Damen tried, for Auguste’s sake.

“I don’t think he’ll kill him,” Damen said slowly. “But only because...I think he wants Laurent to suffer, and a quick death is less painful.”

“You think he’s being tortured, then.”

“In some way, yes. If I were Reynard, if I hated Laurent so much as that, I would want him to know that he had failed utterly, that nothing could stand in Reynard’s way. So I think he will keep him alive, until you are dead, and Reynard knows his victory is achieved.”

“Like a checkmate.”

A shiver ran down Damen’s spine. “Exactly.”

Auguste took a deep breath. “I doubt that I will sleep the better for knowing that, but it is cause for hope, and I thank you for it.”

It was the same hope that Damen clung to, when his head spun and the nights seemed to last for years. Laurent was alive, he had to be alive. He was too clever to fall into one of Reynard’s traps. And yet—

I am not afraid to sacrifice myself for Vere, Laurent had said.

They could not reach the palace soon enough. Damen wrapped the blanket around himself and closed his eyes.

 

* * *

 

The journey to Arles took them half the time that Damen and Laurent’s party had, when they set out. Still, their travel seemed far too slow, knowing that Laurent was in danger.

Finally the palace became visible in the distance. They called a halt there and waited until dark. This was hardest of all, knowing how near they were and yet forcing themselves to rest. They could not hope to best Reynard while they were weary and travel-worn.

Days before, Auguste had produced a map from his pack and shown Damen the passages that led into the palace, routes of escape for the royal family. Even telling Damen of their existence was tantamount to treason, let alone giving him the key that would open them, but it was the only hope they had of entering the palace unseen.

Tonight, Auguste was quiet, his mood dark. He looked up from their campfire. “Forgive me, Damen, I have not asked—how are you faring?”

“Well enough.”

“Can you fight, if you must?”

He nodded. His vision was improving, and the headaches were fading in equal measure, though they were by no means gone. He had dispensed with the eyepatch the day before. He saw Rissa’s disapproving face in his mind’s eye, heard her voice counseling rest, and ignored it. There would be time to rest when it was over.

“You are confident that you can find the passage into the palace?”

“Yes, but—you will not be with me?”

Auguste shook his head and drew the crown out of his pack. “I am not going to slip into my own palace like a thief. Besides, the king’s unexpected return will draw attention away from you.”

“And if Reynard’s men kill you before you reach the gates?”

Auguste loosened his sword in its sheath. “They are welcome to try,” he said grimly.

Just before sunset, they clasped hands one last time and parted ways. Damen hoped it would not be the last time they met.

The passage leading into the palace began—or ended—as a trapdoor in a tumble-down shack nearly half a mile from the palace grounds. It was unguarded, which meant that Reynard might not be aware of it. Damen unlocked the trapdoor with the key that Auguste had given him and descended into the dark.

He had brought a lantern with him, but it illuminated only a few feet of the path in front of him. As Damen walked, the darkness began to play tricks on him. At one moment, he felt as though he had been walking for only minutes; at the next, it seemed like it might have been days.

The passage sloped gently upward, and Damen felt a surge of relief. The palace at Arles was built on a rise—perhaps he was getting close.

When the passage ended, it came so suddenly that Damen nearly hit his head on the wooden trap-door. He unlocked it in the faint light of the lantern and gave the trapdoor a nudge, to see if it drew attention.

But silence was the only answer. Damen pushed the trapdoor open, catching the door before it could fall back with a slam.

He emerged in the kitchens, empty and dark save for the embers of a cookfire in the vast hearth. The sole witness was a sleek tabby cat kept as a safeguard against mice, and she only switched her tail as she watched him pass.

He paused at the door of the kitchens, considering his route. He would not get far into the palace dressed as he was. But if he could make his way to the barracks, near the practice room where he had sparred with Laurent, he could outfit himself like a guard. It might be enough to gain him entry into whatever cell Reynard had chosen to hold Laurent.

But the kitchens were at the far end of the palace, and if he were to meet with anyone, it would undoubtedly be in the lower passages that served the servants’ quarters. The nobles’ wing, empty as it was, would be unguarded save for the occasional passage of a guard. That was the route Damen would have to take—up, along the corridors, and back down again to the barracks.

He crept along corridors and up staircases that seemed unfamiliar in the dark and quiet, though he had walked them with Laurent only a few months before.

A shadow shifted, and Damen ducked back beyond a doorway. A night guard, or a courtier without the sense to leave the palace with his betters? He waited for the sound of a footstep or a drawn weapon, scarcely daring to breathe, but there was no sound of movement, no shout of alarm.

He peered out from behind his cover and let out a breath. It was only a drape, caught in the breeze of an open window. Damen turned to pass it by and caught sight of an intricately carved panel lining the hall.

He stopped. Laurent had brought him this way once, before they sparred. They had taken a private passage down to the baths and into the practice room. From there, the barracks were only steps away.

But how had the passage opened? Laurent had reached up and pressed some shape, a piece of one of the carved flowers. Damen trailed his fingers up the wall, pressing gently on every carved piece he found. It was a petal, wasn’t it? Somewhere...there.

The petal gave way with a soft click, and the door swung open. The quiet squeak of the hinges felt as loud as a battle-cry in these deserted halls. Damen stepped through and closed the door behind him, waiting to hear if any footsteps had followed him. The lantern in his hand flickered in a draft and then held steady.

He descended the long stone staircase, following its curved path until he reached the bottom. But there, the path branched out, leading left as well as straight ahead. Damen closed his eyes, trying to remember. In the dark, he had simply trusted Laurent to lead him forward, never knowing that the tunnels split off, most likely serving different parts of the palace as secret passages. He might wander down here for a day or more and never find the right passage.

He had to trust his instincts. He forged ahead, and he felt the air stir against his face. A blank wall loomed in front of him like a dead end. Damen put out his hand and pushed.

He stepped out of the passage into an empty cupboard and the silent, marble walls of the baths. The air was stuffy and warm, as though no one had been down here in quite some time. He turned right at the end of the room and stepped into the amphitheater.

When they had first passed through this place, Damen had been horrified at the thought of Veretians using the whipping post as a spectacle. Laurent in turn had assured him that the room had not been used in decades.

It was being used now.

His arms were spread apart, lashed to the crossbar of the post so that he was forced to kneel. His blond hair was dirty, like the red cloth that had been tied across his eyes.

His back and chest were bruised, and thin trails of blood crossed his spine like the faintest lash-marks. The vast room was utterly empty, a silence broken only by Laurent’s slow breaths. Who knew how long they had left him here, bound and blindfolded, with nothing to do but think on what would come next?

Damen’s first footstep echoed, and Laurent flinched, pulling at the straps that bound him to the cross.

“Easy,” Damen said. “I’m here. I’ll get you loose.”

Laurent stilled, but the tension did not leave him. “You’re not real,” he said, very calmly.

“I am real.”

He shook his head, a single sharp motion. “No. You weren’t last time, and you aren’t now,” he said, and Damen’s heart broke for him. How long had he been bound here, locked in silence and darkness, until his mind began to play tricks on him?

“Laurent.”

“All the tortures my uncle can devise, and the worst comes from my own mind,” Laurent said. His voice cracked, on the brink of hysteria. “I think I preferred the last time, when you told me you hated me. Can’t you just let me be?”

“Hold still,” Damen said, and he pulled the trailing end of the blindfold. The cloth fell away, and Lauren blinked several times before lifting his head. He wavered for a moment, as though in disbelief.

Laurent, bound to a whipping post, on seeing Damen again. By Damnmads

“Damen?”

“Yes. Come, we have to get you out of here. We can take one of the passages and be well on our way before they know you are missing.”

He shook his head, struggling to focus. “No. You don’t have time. He’s coming back, and I don’t—I’m not sure how far I can walk.”

What had they done to him? Damen could not bear to think on it. “It doesn’t matter. I can carry you.”

“You can’t carry me and fight. And once he realizes I’m free, you’ll have to fight.”

“I didn’t come here alone. Auguste will—”

The wood of the whipping post creaked as Laurent jerked against it. “Auguste is here? No, Reynard will kill him, he can’t be here. You have to get him away, this is what Reynard wants.

“Laurent,” Damen began.

Somewhere, a door opened.

“There’s no time,” Laurent said. “Loosen the strap around my wrist.”

Damen swallowed back a hundred protests and arguments. “Left or right?”

“Left. He won’t expect an attack from that side.”

Damen unfastened the strap and, against every instinct in his body, fastened it again. Laurent tested the bonds, sliding his hand nearly out of the strap before nodding.

“Good. Now hide.”

There were footsteps coming closer now, and the faintest light of a lantern began to show near the top of the amphitheater. Damen climbed the short flight of steps to the first row of seats. There was a low wall in front of them, and if he lay behind it he would be invisible from above and below. There was a gap between the panels, just large enough for Damen to see Laurent, his head hanging low as though in defeat, and on the ground in front of him—

The blindfold. They had not thought to tie it again, and if Reynard realized that he’d had help...

“Good evening, Laurent,” Reynard said. “You’ve been busy, I see.” He picked up the discarded blindfold and tossed it aside. “But if you sought to escape, you are too late. Look, we have a guest.”

The soldiers parted ranks to reveal Auguste, bound and bruised and held between two guards. “Are you well, Laurent?” he asked, his voice light and pleasant even through a split lip.

“Quite well,” he replied. “I have been enjoying our uncle’s hospitality.”

“So I see. And how do you find it?”

“Lacking,” Laurent said drily.

“Yes, there’s quite a draft down here. Very unwelcoming.”

“You know he means to kill us both,” Laurent added conversationally. “He wants the throne.”

“Silly of you to come here, knowing that.”

Laurent shrugged, as best he could from his position. “You know I can never refuse a reckless gambit,” he said.

“Enough!” Reynard shouted, his voice echoing through the empty chamber. “I am the only one strong enough to protect Vere. You treat Akielons as though they are our friends, but you have forgotten the lessons of the past. They will bury a knife between your ribs when the moment serves them.”

“The only one who has used a knife against me is you, uncle,” Laurent said.

“Because I must!” he cried. “You will poison this kingdom with your folly. You would let our enemies ravish Vere, just as the Akielon ravished your body.”

Laurent’s laugh was high and sharp. “Vere has not earned the kindness with which Damianos treated my body.”

A guard descended the stairs beside Damen, and he knew it was the best opportunity he was likely to have. He wrapped a hand around the guard’s ankle and yanked. The guard fell in a tumbling clatter, and in half a moment Damen rose from his hiding place with the guard dead and his sword in Damen’s hand.

At the sight of Damen, Reynard caught a handful of Laurent’s hair and pulled his head back. He rested the blade of a dagger along the side of his throat.

“Lay down your sword, or I’ll kill him.”

“He’ll kill me anyway, don’t put it down,” Laurent countered.

Damen gripped the sword, hesitating. They were frozen here. If Damen moved, Reynard would slit Laurent’s throat. Damen would kill him, that was not in question, but Laurent would still be dead.

“Go on,” Laurent snapped. “Kill him, I don’t care, just—”

Reynard angled the blade, just enough that the tip pressed against Laurent’s throat. A tiny drop of blood welled over the point of the blade, and Laurent fell silent.

A breath of air behind him was the only warning Damen had. He turned, and his sword met the blade of a guard poised to attack. The guard was not prepared for the strength of Damen’s counterattack, and Damen knocked his sword away and killed him in the space of a breath.

There were more guards behind him, half a dozen at least, and Damen stepped forward to meet them.

As Damen moved, so did Laurent.

He had been busy with his loosened bonds, and it gave him enough slack to pull back, away from the knife that was pressed against his throat.

Recognizing that his chance was slipping away, Reynard lashed out. But Laurent had shifted just far enough that the blade stuck in his shoulder, instead of cutting his throat. Reynard stepped back in surprise, giving Laurent time to release the strap pinning his right hand to the cross-bar.

He climbed to his feet, stumbling.

Across the room, Auguste had pulled free of his guards in the confusion and was holding his ground, having gained a sword from one of them.

But Reynard was advancing on Laurent, and Laurent could barely keep his feet, let alone run. Laurent circled the whipping post, keeping it between Reynard and himself, but it was poor cover and it would not last for long. Damen cut a path towards them, knowing he would not reach them in time.

Laurent, however, was not content to wait for rescue. He cried out as he pulled the knife from his shoulder and hurled it at Reynard.

If he had been able to throw with his good hand—if the angle had been better—if Reynard hadn’t moved, almost instinctively, to the left—the blade might have struck home. But Laurent was throwing from a poor angle, half-blind with pain, and instead of sinking into Reynard’s stomach, the point of the dagger only grazed his side before clattering to the floor.

It bought them a few seconds, no more. Damen would have to reach them before Reynard could retrieve his blade and finish what he had started.

Time seemed to slow, like a nightmare. At every step, Damen expected a sword in his back. Though he was gaining on Reynard, he knew he would be too late.

Reynard had retrieved the knife and was advancing on Laurent. Laurent paced backwards, but his legs gave out beneath him and he fell. Reynard could close the distance between them in two steps.

Something flashed past Damen’s face, sending him diving to one side. There was a quiet sound of impact.

Reynard cocked his head, looking down with vague surprise at the arrow embedded in his chest. The dagger slipped from his hands and fell to the floor.

Reynard followed.

Damen spun around to find the source of the arrow. None of the remaining guards had a bow.

He looked up.

At the highest level of the amphitheater stood a pair of figures in the uniform of the royal guard. One held a bow in his hands. “Lay down your weapons,” he shouted, fitting another arrow to his string.

The guards decided as one that they did not wish to share their leader’s fate, and they threw down their swords.

Only then did Aimeric drop the bow and turn to bury his face in Jord’s shoulder.

Quiet fell; the only sound was Laurent’s ragged breathing as he climbed to his feet.

Reynard had fallen with his face down, the arrow broken beneath him. Laurent kicked the body over.

Reynard’s eyes stared sightlessly up at the ceiling. Laurent nodded, satisfied, and then dropped to his knees in a half-controlled tumble. His hand was pressed to the wound in his shoulder, but blood was soaking through his shirt.

Damen knelt down next to him. “Laurent.”

“You had to play the hero—both of you,” he said. “I should have known neither of you would do the sensible thing.”

“Come here, let’s get you upstairs.”

Laurent pulled back, wincing as the motion shifted his shoulder. “I am not going to be carried like a child.”

“Yes, you are,” Auguste said. “You’re bleeding.”

“I know that.”

“We’re going to take you upstairs to the physician. Your shoulder—”

“Don’t worry,” he said absently, letting his hand fall. “It doesn’t hurt anymore.”

Damen did not let him protest further. He gathered Laurent up in his arms and let Auguste lead them up into the main floors of the palace. The few servants who remained in the palace rushed to help as soon as they saw Auguste, and Laurent half-swooning in Damen’s arms.

The commotion that erupted as soon as they appeared in the great hall was enough to make it clear that no one save Reynard’s personal guard had known that Laurent was here. Auguste called for a physician and five servants went running to fetch one.

Damen carried Laurent up to the royal physician’s chambers. He had fainted entirely by then, which was a mercy. The physician directed Damen to set Laurent down on the bed, and then he bullied them all out of the room.

The door closed, locking them away, and Damen stood in the corridor with Auguste, exhausted and empty.

“It’s over,” Auguste said.

“Yes,” Damen replied. But it wasn’t. There was still Akielos, and the matter of their rescuers. He roused himself from a daze. “We left Jord and Aimeric down there. I need to find them.”

“Did you send for them? Did you know they would come?”

“No. When the physician comes out, will you find me?”

“Of course.”

It was difficult to walk away from Laurent’s room, even knowing that there was nothing he could do to help. One of the servants told him that “the Prince’s guardsman” had brought his companion to the nobles’ living quarters, and that she had not seen them since.

So Damen crossed the palace to the nobles’ wing, where he found Jord standing alone outside a carved door.

Jord inclined his head. “Prince Damianos. No, I’m sorry, not Prince--”

He held up a hand. He could not hear himself called King, not yet. Not until he had reclaimed that title for himself. “Jord. Where is Aimeric?”

“Sleeping. I don’t want to wake him, if you please. He hasn’t properly rested since he heard what happened to the pair of you. Though it seems our news was somewhat inaccurate.”

“How did you come to be here?”

“Aimeric insisted. I know that Prince Laurent commanded us to stay at Fortaine, but when we heard the news from Akielos, Aimeric begged me to take him to Arles. He said that he needed to tell King Auguste the truth about—what had happened on the road, and why. He would not be swayed from it. He said that Prince Laurent had shown mercy to us both, and that he deserved justice, however late it may be in coming.”

“And when you arrived?”

“When we learned that Reynard had been made seneschal, we knew that something was amiss. We waylaid a pair of guards and took their uniforms. We arrived in time to see the king being captured, and we followed the guards down to the amphitheater. From there...you know the rest. I can wake Aimeric to tell you his part, if you wish it...”

“Let him rest,” Damen said. “Perhaps you might sleep, as well. You have come far, and we all owe you our lives.”

“Thank you, my lord, but I won’t sleep. Not till he wakes,” Jord said, and Damen did not know whether he meant Laurent, or Aimeric, or both.

 

Damen returned to the corridor outside the physician’s chambers, where Auguste was still waiting. He looked as tired as Damen felt, and they did not need to say anything as they took up a position on either side of the door, waiting.

It was not long before the physician stepped out into the hall, closing the door gently behind himself.

“Well?” Auguste and Damen demanded at the same time.

But the physician was not cowed by the interrogation of two royals. “His shoulder will heal cleanly, I think. Wherever did you find him?”

“In the cellar of the palace,” Auguste said grimly. “Reynard was holding him there.”

Reynard?” The physician’s expression shifted through horror before settling on fury. “The bruises on him are days old. He must have been here for a week or more—”

“How badly is he hurt?” Damen broke in.

“There’s no blood but what you saw, and nothing broken. He’d been a few days without food, at least. But what he needs now is rest. If there’s more to the story, we’ll have to wait for him to tell us when he wakes.”

“But he will wake?” Damen asked, clinging to the shreds of his patience.

“Yes, though he should sleep through the day at least. I will send one of my apprentices for you when he is well enough for visitors.” The physician left them, then, and Damen leaned against the wall, exhaustion threatening to overtake him.

“You should rest, too,” Auguste suggested.

 “As though I could.” Damen raked a hand through his hair. “When he wakes, when we know...”

“Yes. Perhaps then. How did this happen, Damen? What could drive Reynard to do something like this?”

He shook his head. “I cannot say. Laurent may be able to tell you more, but it is not my place.”

They retired to Auguste’s quarters to wait for any news. Servants brought food that they picked over halfheartedly, and after a while they found themselves dozing on the soft divans, though neither was able to settle enough for a truly restful sleep.

They both jolted upright when someone knocked on the door, surprised to find that morning light was beginning to filter in through the windows.

The physician’s apprentice shrank back, on the point of flight. “I was told to tell you that Prince Laurent is awake and asking for you.”

They went to him immediately. Laurent was sitting up in bed, wan and tired-looking, but alert. A white bandage was wound around his shoulder, and bruises stood out starkly against his pale skin. At the sight of Damen, his eyes narrowed.

“What did you think you were doing, coming here?” he demanded. “Did you forget every word of our argument? You wanted to return to Akielos, to take command of Nikandros’ forces and march on the capital. You were not supposed to come after me to Arles.”

“You left me. What I did after that was not up to you.”

Laurent’s hand tightened on the blanket. “I left to make the decision easier for you.”

Easier. You might have left a note.”

“I did.”

“You might have left a sensible note, then. And as for our argument, I remember the substance of it—though it is somewhat overshadowed by the aftermath.”

He was petty enough to be pleased when Laurent’s face colored. But Laurent recovered himself quickly, rounding on Auguste. “And you,” he said. “Are you mad? Coming here, putting us both in Reynard’s reach? He might have killed us both at one stroke and become king by right!”

“But he did not. And I would do it again, a hundred times over, to save you,” Auguste said flatly.

Laurent sank back onto the pillows. “You are both idiots.” A faint frown appeared on his forehead. He had expected to die at Reynard’s hand; faced with the prospect of survival, he seemed unsure of himself for the first time.

Auguste sat down in the chair beside the bed. “Laurent, what happened?”

“I need to speak with my brother,” Laurent said, looking up at Damen. “You should go and rest.”

Damen accepted it for the dismissal it was. Laurent would need to explain the whole matter of Reynard to Auguste, and that would be difficult enough without Damen there to complicate matters.

Damen left the room, but he stopped in the hall outside. The shutters overlooking the gardens had been thrown open, and the air was warm and damp and smelled of growing things. Damen looked down onto the empty gardens, his mind blank. There was work still to be done, dangerous and unpleasant work, but Laurent was alive, and that was enough for this moment.

Some time later, the door came open again. Damen did not look up. After a moment, Auguste came to join him at the window. He gripped the sill with both hands, his knuckles turning white with the pressure. “I wish I could kill him again,” he said, his voice hoarse.

“Yes.”

“Laurent says that Aimeric deserved to take the shot, that he suffered most at Reynard’s hands, but I...” He shook his head. “You knew?”

“Laurent told me. It was shared in confidence; I could not tell you.”

“I wish—” Auguste broke off. “But it is done now. I only regret that he carried it for so long.”

“I know.” Damen was on the point of speaking again when the physician came down the hall and found them.

“What are the pair of you still doing here?” he demanded. “Go and rest, before I have the servants drug the both of you into unconsciousness.”

 

They slept in rooms near the physician’s chambers, to be close by in case Laurent should have need of anything. It did not make sense, on the surface—after all, there was nothing Laurent could need that the physician or his apprentices could not provide—but after thinking they might never see Laurent again, neither Damen nor Auguste were eager to be far away from him.

Damen woke in the morning to a servant’s whispered summons. “The prince wants to speak with you,” she said.

Damen rose and dressed before following her down the hall and into Laurent’s room. He looked better than he had the day before; there was color in his face, and some of the hollowness had left his cheeks. Damen sat in the chair by his bedside.

“You were right,” Laurent said. “It seems it was well worth bringing Aimeric to our side.”

Damen allowed himself to feel a tiny spark of happiness in Laurent’s admission. “And you were right to release him when we reached Marlas. You said yourself that you thought he would do the right thing, if the moment came. I do not think even you knew how true that would be.”

“I confess that he surprised me,” Laurent said. “I thought he might speak on my behalf at a trial one day, whether or not I lived to see it. I never supposed that he would play such a vital role.”

“Why?” Damen asked, into the quiet that followed. “Why would you come here, knowing everything your uncle planned to do?”

“I thought I could change his mind. I thought I could make him stop all of this.”

“No, you didn’t,” Damen said.

He sighed. “No. I only hoped that I could offer myself up as a distraction, that I could buy you enough time to retake your capital and prevent war with Vere. You cannot tell me it would have been less than a fair trade.”

“Yes, I can,” Damen countered.

Thousands of lives might have been lost if my brother’s army had reached the border. Auguste’s life would almost certainly have been among them. I will not apologize for doing all in my power to prevent war.”

“But if you had told me, if we could have faced Reynard together...”

“It had to be me, alone. I was the one he wanted most of all.”

“Did he—” Damen could not bring himself to finish the question.

“No. He made threats, of course, but I am not what he desires anymore. Too old, and far less obliging than I once was. I thought he would command his soldiers to do what he could not, but he did not dare test their loyalty so far as that.”

Damen drew in a breath. “Why did you...the night before we parted ways, why did you let me...”

Let you?” Laurent laughed wearily. “I would have let you have me every day since you first kissed me, if I had only had the courage to ask.” He shook his head. “It wasn’t fair to you, I suppose, but I knew that I would not return from the palace, and I would have no further chance for the experience. The memory of it was...a balm to me, at times. It gave me courage. And when it came to the end, I wanted something to smile about when the headsman’s axe fell. Nothing would have discomposed my uncle more than to wonder what reason I yet had to smile.”

Damen’s fingers curled into fists, and he had to force himself to relax them. To know that Laurent had gone willingly towards his own death, to save Damen and Auguste, was too much to think on.

Laurent looked down at Damen’s hands and mistook his fear for something else. “I understand if you are angry at me for leaving you. I knew that it was cruel, and I did it anyway. I will not ask your forgiveness.”

“You don’t need to ask,” Damen said. “There was never anything to forgive.”

Laurent looked up at him curiously. “You are impossible to understand.”

“Then you know how I have felt about you from the very start.”

Laurent half-smiled. “I suppose that is settled, then. Now. What are we going to do about Akielos?”

Chapter Text

The physician flatly refused to allow Laurent out of bed for a week, a command that lasted all of three days. Damen counted that a success, given Laurent’s stubbornness.

The first thing he did, when he managed to escape his rooms, was seek out Jord and Auguste in the nobles’ quarters. Damen went with him, in case he should overexert himself. Laurent clearly did not appreciate his hovering, but he did not protest.

Aimeric could barely meet Laurent’s eyes. “I’m sorry, my lord. I know you said I wasn’t to leave Fortaine.”

“Aimeric. You saved all of our lives. Given that, I am not inclined to argue over your sentence. And to that end...” He looked up. “Jord. I am releasing you from your duties regarding Aimeric.”

Jord nodded. “Yes, my lord. And if I...wished to remain with him?”

Aimeric flushed and ducked his head.

“I thought perhaps you might,” Laurent said. “I have already discussed the matter with my brother. As our last seneschal proved false, we require a new one, to serve until our matters in Akielos are settled. The two of you together would do well in that role, I believe.”

Jord stammered. “My lord, you honor me, you and King Auguste both, but I am not—I have not earned—”

“Nonsense,” Auguste said, leaning in the doorway. “You have earned that place three times over, by my reckoning.”

Jord rose to his feet immediately and bowed. Beside him, Aimeric did the same, though somewhat more slowly. He was a noble, after all, not a soldier. Jord’s voice was strained. “If it pleases you, Your Majesty, I will be honored to serve.”

“Excellent. Aimeric?”

“Jord deserves the honor, but I do not. I cannot— how can you possibly trust me, Your Majesty? After everything?”

“Laurent told me enough of what happened to you. I think that any errors you made in the past will remain in the past. Besides, Jord will be able to direct the guards and servants easily, but I expect he will need someone to help him manage the nobles.”

Aimeric bit down on a smile at the thought of Jord overrun by petty nobles. Perhaps he realized that as seneschal he might rule over even his father in most matters, because in the end he accepted the position with gratitude.

With Vere in safe hands, their attentions turned to Akielos. Damen had discussed the matter with Auguste, and they had decided together that the best course would be to procure a ship at the mouth of the Arlesian River. From there, it was only a few days’ journey by sea to Marlas, where they could meet with Nikandros and gather their soldiers to march on Ios.

It took Laurent barely an hour to realize that he had been left out of their plans. He shoved his way into Auguste’s study and immediately made himself a part of the proceedings.

“When are we leaving?” he asked, at the end.

“We?” Damen echoed. “You were forbidden from riding for a fortnight at least.”

“I am not so near death that I cannot manage to ride at a walking pace. Unless you intend to indulge in a boar hunt before we leave, I am perfectly well enough to join you.”

“Laurent—”

“Enough. I do not intend to be parted from you again,” Laurent said firmly. “At least until all of this is settled.”

Damen nodded. “Very well, then. But do tell me when you plan to inform the physician of your decision—I want to be as far away as possible from the resulting explosion.”

 

But though the plan was already in place, Damen struggled to accept that it was necessary. Surely there was some other way, some strategy he had not yet considered, that could end it all without bloodshed.

He pored over maps and battle-histories as though they would reveal some secret to him. He was leaning over yet another map, spread over a table in the library, when Laurent walked in.

“You are supposed to be resting,” Damen said mildly. They’d long since given up hope that Laurent would listen to them on that account.

Laurent did not respond, but instead sat down at the table across from Damen, looking down at the map.

“I have noticed that our plans all seem to end at Marlas. What do you mean to do once we reach Nikandros there?”

“I don’t know.”

“Damen, Kastor tried to kill you. He tried to kill us both. What else is there to do?”

He said, “I don’t want to fight my brother.”

He meant, I don’t want to kill my brother.

“I know that,” Laurent replied. “But he has given you little choice in the matter.”

“He is my brother.”

“And Theomedes was your father.”

“Yes. Would he have wanted this? To pit brother against brother, in a civil war that may set all of Akielos alight?”

Laurent hesitated before replying. “Your father would have wanted the best king to rule Akielos. If you think Kastor is that man, then let all of this go. Stay dead, stay with me in Vere—there will always be a place for you here. But if you think your kingdom deserves better than a murderer to rule it, then let us fight.”

He leaned across the table to press a kiss to Damen’s cheek. “It is your choice. Whatever you do, I will follow your lead.”

Then Laurent was gone, the door closing behind him as quiet as a whisper. And Damen let himself think of it.

He thought of what it would be like to retire to a villa in the Veretian countryside with Laurent, managing the livestock and farmlands around them. And each evening he could sleep beside Laurent, with no concern greater than the spring foaling.

But could he ever sleep peacefully, knowing that he had abandoned his people?

At dawn, Damen shouldered his pack and made his way to the stables. He had not woken Laurent—he still needed the rest, and Damen’s retinue could wait for them at the mouth of the river.

He stepped out into the stable-yard and found that it was already occupied. Laurent sat astride his horse, waiting at the head of a company of guards. In one hand he held the bridle of Damen’s mount, already saddled.

Damen looked up at him. “How did you know?” he asked. “Even I wasn’t certain that this was the choice I would make.”

Laurent’s smile was easy and sure. “I knew,” he said, “because I fell in love with a king.”

 

* * *

 

The journey from Arles to the coast, and then to Marlas, was tense. It seemed to pass too quickly, for all the work they had yet to do, and too slowly, knowing that every day of their journey was another day that Kastor held the throne.

Auguste rode with them until they reached the mouth of the river. From there, he turned his retinue south, to rejoin his army at Ravenel. He would wait there, in case Damen and Laurent found themselves outmatched by Kastor’s army. Damen hoped they would not need Auguste’s aid—even with the letters he had written, swearing that Auguste’s advance was made on behalf of the true king of Akielos, there would be bloodshed before the army reached Ios. With any luck, Auguste’s next word from the pair of them would be informing him of their victory.

The sky was bright and clear when their ship docked on the coast below Marlas. Even before they reached the fortress itself, Damen could hear the low clamor of hundreds of voices, the ring and stamp of bridled horses—the sound of an army at camp.

They reached the fortress itself at midday, and the guards showed them into Nikandros’ study.

“King Damianos has come,” the guard said.

For once heedless of decorum, Nikandros crossed the room and embraced Damen. He stepped back and gripped Damen’s shoulders. “I never dared hope that I would see you again,” he said. “When they told me you were lost at sea...” He shook his head.

“I am glad to see you, as well,” Damen said, grinning.

Nikandros glanced over at Laurent. Though there was no outward sign of his injury, he still held himself carefully. More importantly, he stood close beside Damen, too near for mere allies and friends. “Prince Laurent.” Nikandros looked back at Damen. “Am I to presume that you will no longer require separate quarters?”

“You may,” Damen said impatiently. “Are your people ready?”

“They are. But we cannot ride until morning at least, so you may rest for the night. And it is good that you came with him,” Nikandros said, turning to Laurent. “There is someone here who will be happy to see you.”

“Implying that you are not,” Laurent said with a thin smile.

Nikandros looked over his shoulder. “You may send them in now.”

The guard bowed and opened a door at the back of the room. The quick slap of sandals on marble sounded, and a small figure came bounding into the room.

“Nicaise!” Laurent caught the weight of the boy as he barreled into him, and he hid his flinch as the motion jarred his shoulder.

Paschal followed the boy, at a more sedate pace. “My lord,” he said, nodding to Laurent. “I cannot say how good it is to see you well.”

“I am equally pleased to see you.”

Paschal’s eyes narrowed as he looked Laurent up and down. “You’ve been hurt.”

“It’s nothing,” Laurent said, with a warning glance towards Nicaise. “How did you come to be here?”

“I knew there was no safe place for Nicaise in Ios. I sent one of the soldiers to look for you, and he did not return—that was all the warning I needed. I hired a merchant’s wagon to carry us out of the city, before I was even sure Nicaise would wake. He has only been out of bed these last few days.”

“That was wise,” Damen said. “Nicaise was the only witness who could tell anything about the attack—Kastor would have sought to remove him at all costs.”

“Aye. It was a risk, stopping on this side of the border, but I did not know what sort of welcome we might have at Fortaine. I liked what I saw, when we first met Nikandros, and I thought he would be worth trusting.”

Damen nodded. “Thank you for looking after them, Nik.”

Nikandros nodded. “Of course. I knew that you would want them safe, even when I thought—when we all believed that you were gone.”

“What of Lazar?” Laurent asked. He had been in the room when Nicaise had fallen ill, but he had been gone by the time Kastor and his men arrived. If they did not know he had been there...

“He was well when we left him, and I hope that he still is,” Paschal said. “Your guard Pallas promised to look after him,” he added, turning to Damen.

“Then he is safe,” Damen replied, thinking of how close the two had grown during their journey. So long as Pallas lived, he would not allow harm to come to Lazar. He did not know if either of the two yet realized the reasons why, but that would come with time.

“What’s this?” Laurent asked. He tugged gently at Nicaise’s brown hair, where a lock near his temple had turned white.

“The poison was quite a shock on his body, my lord,” Paschal said. “He’s lucky enough that it’s the only reminder.”

“I hate it,” Nicaise muttered.

“It’s very dashing,” Laurent reassured him. “Wait a few years, and you’ll have your pick of suitors.”

Nicaise wrinkled his nose uncertainly.

A servant appeared in the doorway and nodded to Nikandros. “There is a meal waiting for you in the great hall. We can meet in the war room after you’ve eaten,” he said. “We have a great many matters to discuss.”

 

Damen had never been so relieved to see a sand tray in his life. Of course he understood the Veretian preference for inked maps, but he had been raised on maps such as these, that could be drawn and redrawn with the sweep of a hand.

Makedon was waiting for them there. He cast a resigned glance at Laurent before bowing to Damianos. “Exalted,” he said. “You honor us with your presence.”

“You served my father honorably for many years,” Damen said. “I am grateful that you choose now to serve me, as well.”

“You are my king,” Makedon said firmly.

Damen nodded, at a loss for how to respond. Instead, he began to prepare the sand tray, raking it smooth and then tracing out features—the coastline, the borders, the capitals. He settled one small carved fortress at their position at Marlas, and another at the far end, representing Ios.

“I have paid a few merchant captains for use of their ships,” Nikandros said, marking the sand tray just beyond the coastline. “We can use them to blockade the harbor, so that Kastor cannot escape by sea.”

“Excellent. Meanwhile, the bulk of our soldiers will march towards Ios.” Damen set the red pennant in the sand, just north of the city.

“Exalted?”

“We stop at the Kingsmeet,” Damen said. “I will send for Kastor to treat with me there.”

“Is that wise?” Laurent asked. In any other company, his question would probably have been sharper, but he was aware that their current company would not approve of criticizing their king.

“It is the honorable course,” Makedon said flatly. “We are not Veretians.”

“Peace, Makedon,” Damen said warningly, and Makedon fell silent. “I want to give him chance to cede the throne peacefully.”

“Do you think he will do it?” Nikandros asked.

Damen shook his head. “No. But he is my brother, and I will not deny him the choice to redeem himself.”

“As you will, Exalted.”

“Nik, I am asking a great deal of you and your generals. What price would you put on your aid here? What reward would you ask?”

“I would ask nothing, Exalted. This I would be honored to do for you.”

“Nothing at all?” Damen smiled. “That is a shame. I had planned to ask you to be my kyros in the capital, once we have reclaimed it. But if you do not wish it...”

“I never said I do not wish it. Only that I would not ask for it, as a price for my aid.”

“Very well, then.” Damen clasped Nikandros’ arm. “You will be kyros in Ios when we have won through.”

“If you will permit me, Exalted,” Makedon said. “This sly Veretian way of speaking will not endear your paramour to our people. They will think he has undue influence on you.”

Laurent smirked. “Then they do not know Damianos well. Have you ever tried to convince him to do something he did not want?”

“I once tried to dissuade him from an unsuitable partner,” Nikandros said wryly. “It did not take.”

“Nik,” Damen began. Nikandros raised his hand in surrender.

“What about Kastor?” Laurent asked. “What will you do with him, when he surrenders?”

Nikandros spoke. “He is a tyrant and a usurper. There is only one fate for such as he.”

“Moreover,” Makedon added, “we cannot depend on his surrender. He may choose to fight instead.”

Damen saw the possibilities laid clear in his mind, each as painful as the next. “Do not ask me to decide that now,” he said. “Let him choose his fate by his own actions.”

Nikandros looked as though he might like to argue, but he would not disagree with his king, not unless they were alone. “Are you decided on this course, then?” he asked formally.

“I am. We ride forth in the morning,” Damen said.

“Yes, Exalted,” Nikandros and Makedon said as one. They departed, leaving Damen staring down at the sand tray, with Laurent beside him.

 

“I missed you,” Damen said, when the lamps were put out and they lay together.

“Did you?” Laurent asked.

“Every moment. You say that you wanted me to turn back to Akielos once you left, but the thought that each mile I rode would take us farther apart...I could not have borne it.”

“I thought you would choose Akielos over me. You should have chosen Akielos.”

“You underestimate your own importance.  This is not the first time.”

“Nikandros would disagree with your decision,” Laurent said. “He would have had you choose Akielos as well.”

“Most likely, yes. I am sorry that he is cold towards you. I can speak with him—”

Laurent laughed against Damen’s shoulder. “Do not trouble yourself with that. I enjoy matching myself against him. And he is protective of his king, which I like.”

“Yes. But he is not afraid to stand against me, which is rare enough in Akielos. I will need someone to do that, when you return to Vere.”

Laurent stiffened a little in his arms.

“Laurent?”

“I will return to Vere, if that is what you wish.”

“It isn’t. Of course it isn’t what I wish. But you have told me, once and again, that your place is in your brother’s court, and your duty is to your people.”

Laurent was silent for a moment. “I think,” he began. “I think with Reynard gone, my brother will be able to build a new council. One that may be relied upon to serve Vere, and not their own interests. He will have...less need of me.”

Damen’s breath caught. “Say it plain, Laurent. What will you do?”

“I would not be parted from you, if it were my choice.”

Damen bent to kiss him, and Laurent shifted beneath him, arching up to press himself against Damen.

Damen drew back. “No—you have stressed yourself enough already. I will not be responsible for you injuring yourself further.”

“Perhaps not,” Laurent said, already sliding his hands down Damen’s body. “But I could use my mouth, if you wanted.”

 

* * *

 

The white marble columns of the Kingsmeet came into view a full day before they reached it. The whole army made camp, a sea of low white tents interrupted only by the taller pavilions of their commanders.

The messenger to Kastor had been dispatched in midafternoon, and Damen found he could not settle, waiting for Kastor’s answer.  He put his restlessness to use among the horses, combing their coats and mucking out their holding pens alongside the soldiers. It was hard work, and yet calming.

When he was done, he washed up and returned to their tent, only to find Laurent on the point of leaving.

“I had a matter to discuss with Nikandros,” he said. “I will not be long.”

Damen frowned. “You want to meet with Nikandros alone?”

“It is nothing to concern yourself with, I promise you.”

“Very well,” Damen said. “I will be here when you return.”

Laurent nodded and went out to find Nikandros. Damen unrolled one of Laurent’s maps and traced the lines of it with a fingertip. They could have the gates of the city blocked by evening tomorrow. Without the steady stream of food that flowed into the city, Ios would descend into chaos before the new moon. Damen hated the thought of his people suffering, but it was safer than a siege. By the end of a week, the people would deliver Kastor up themselves, if he did not surrender himself.

Laurent had not been gone long when Damen heard the tent-flap open behind him. The candle-flames guttered and twisted before steadying again.

“Laurent,” he said, turning.

“No.”

Damen turned, and the figure standing before him drew back his hood.

“Kastor,” Damen said. He took a steadying breath. “You look well.”

“And you.”

“A surprise, I imagine, considering how we last parted ways.”

He closed his eyes. “I never wished to do that to you. The Veretian, Reynard, he insisted, and I could not deny him. He had me cornered, blackmailed.”

“Reynard is dead.”

Kastor nodded. “Yes, I thought he must be. I am glad to hear it—nearly as glad as I am to see you here before me.”

“Truly?”

“Of course. You are my brother.”

“Am I?” Damen countered. “You tried to have me killed—more than once, I suspect. You would have sold this kingdom to the worst of the Veretians in order to take my place. I cannot imagine how much you must have hated me, to do all of that.”

Kastor dropped to one knee. “I do not hate you, Damianos. I never have. I was jealous of you, from the very start. But now I see that your lot is not the better. I did not realize how difficult it would be, to be king.”

“No. You thought it would be banquets and celebrations, wars that you only see as lines on a sand-tray. You never understood that the crown was a duty, not a reward.”

“I was a fool,” Kastor said. “And tomorrow I will stand on the Kingstone and cede you the throne as is your due.”

Damen nodded.

“Can you forgive me, brother?”

“You were misled by an enemy of both Vere and Akielos. The people will demand a punishment, but it need not be a cruel one. You could live at Karthas, under guard, and perhaps one day you might even return home.” He held out a hand to pull Kastor to his feet.

“You are merciful. Tomorrow I will be pleased to see you crowned.” He stepped forward, his arms held wide, and Damen accepted his brother’s embrace.

“Farwell,” Kastor murmured. Damen heard the rasp of metal against leather and felt a sudden sharp pressure as Kastor drove a dagger into Damen’s back—

—only to find the blade turned aside by the ring-mail tunic beneath his chiton.

Damen pulled away and slammed one hand against Kastor’s wrist, jarring the knife loose. The snap of bone was loud in the quiet, but Kastor gave no cry as he crumpled to his knees.

Damen kicked the blade away, out of Kastor’s reach. He had expected to feel something—anger, perhaps, at another betrayal—but instead there was only hollow resignation. He had expected it to end this way.

“Did you think that I would trust you so easily?” he asked. “You, who poisoned a child, who set me adrift in a storm, who conspired with a foreign nation to kill our father and steal the throne—”

“Father was dying already.”

“It was not your place to hasten his journey.”

“Brother—”

“No,” Damen said, angry for the first time. “You do not get to call me that any longer.”

There was a noise from outside. “Damen? Are you in here? Your guards were dismissed, and I did not—” Laurent stepped into the tent with Nikandros at his heels. They pulled up short at the scene they found inside the tent. Kastor, kneeling before Damen, and the knife some yards away on the canvas floor of the tent.

Nikandros took an abortive step towards Kastor, but Laurent looked hard at Damen, as though searching for some sign of blood. “Are you well?”

Damen nodded. “I told you that he would come to me.”

“You did.”

A new pair of guards rushed into the tent. “Exalted, the guards on duty were found dead in their tent. We fear there is—"

“An intruder, yes,” Nikandros said. “As you see.”

“Peace,” Damen said, holding up a hand. “Kastor and I were discussing his future, and its relative length.”

Kastor looked up at him with wary eyes and said nothing.

“I would have granted you mercy. You might have lived a fine life at Karthas. But now...now I know that you cannot be trusted, even so far as that. Tomorrow when I stand upon the Kingstone, I will offer you a choice, before the court and the scribes.”

“Exile or execution?” Kastor said bitterly.

“It is more of a choice than you gave to our father.” Damen shook his head. “Tell me, was it truly grief that killed him? Or a silken pillow, pressed over his face as he slept?”

Kastor said nothing.

“Bind him and take him,” Damen said to the guards. “Keep him watched, and—”

A horn call rang out over the noise of the camp, and all three of them looked up.

“That’s a battle call,” Nikandros said.

“Indeed.” Damen spared one final glance at Kastor and stepped past him, leading Laurent and Nikandros out of the tent.

It had been Nikandros’ suggestion to leave scouts at range, so they would have time to muster their forces. Damen had hoped that it would not be necessary—he had even placed a bet on it. But that was a matter for later.

Damen sighed. “You were right about Kastor,” he said to Laurent.

“Yes.”

He turned to Nikandros. “And you were right about the ambush.”

“Thank you.”

Laurent looked up at him. “Your orders?”

“Take the right flank. Nik, you have the left. I’ll take the center.” The right flank conferred greater honor, traditionally, but Nikandros was left-handed and preferred to fight on his good side. Besides, he would be kyros of the capital by morning, if they won through; that was honor enough for him.

Damen’s horse was ready and waiting, and he swung himself into the saddle.

“Instruct your men to give quarter to those who seek it,” Damen added. “They do not know who they are fighting.”

A messenger sprinted to Nikandros with a bundle in his hand. Nikandros wheeled his horse around and held the bundle out to Damen—a red cloak, with a golden lion pin nestled in the folds of the cloth.

“I had them taken from Kastor,” he said. “So the soldiers will know you.”

Damen nodded, tracing his thumb over the pin. “Thank you,” he said.

The red cloak felt heavy, but that was only his imagination. Damen fixed it in place with the golden lion pin, the symbol of the royal house of Akielos, and waited on the second horn-call, the one that would alert their hidden flanks to attack. Makedon was already harrying Kastor’s men, but they would believe he was alone. Once Nikandros and Laurent were in position, they would lead their flanks against the ambush, pinning the enemy between them.

He hadn’t wanted it to come to this; he did not want to spend the eve of his coronation fighting his own people. But Kastor had left him no choice.

He could see the approaching force now, a thousand warriors on horseback. Damen’s people had half that number, perhaps, but they had the advantage of strategy.

The horn-call rang out, and with it came a shout from each flank. “Damianos! Damianos lives!”

The flanks surged up from behind cover, and the solid wall of their attackers crumbled into chaos. The front lines carried forward like the crest of a wave, too close to be stopped by the approaching flanks.

Damen brought his line forward and braced himself for the attack.

The enemy was on them almost instantly, shields and swords and horses clashing with a hellish sound. Damen’s training carried him through any uncertainty he might have felt, meeting every sword-strike with his own.

Soldiers who recognized his crimson cloak wheeled away, throwing down their arms. Damen let them go. Others attacked him without knowing him, and he did his best to drive them back without killing them.

As word of Damen’s survival spread through the ranks of the enemy, the center of the battle faltered. Small clashes and knots of fighting remained along the flanks—most notably the right—even after Damen’s line had won through. He struggled against the urge to ride out to Laurent’s aid. He did not need it, and he would not thank Damen for his interference.

It was nearly midnight when the last of the fighting stopped. The left flank had surrendered en masse half an hour before, and Nikandros was already directing his soldiers to tally the wounded, the missing, and those who had surrendered.

Damen’s mount shifted beneath him, sensing his anxiety. The fighting was done, but it had grown too dark to see the right flank. Where was Laurent? Had he been unhorsed, or wounded? Or had a chance blow taken him—

Laurent appeared out of the gloom, his horse picking its way through the debris. Laurent’s armor was blood-spattered but undamaged, and he rode straight-backed and calm as though he had not just ridden from a battlefield. He dipped his head to Damen.

“The field is yours, Exalted.”

 

* * *

 

In the light of morning, Damen and Laurent made their way to the Kingsmeet. They ascended the long shallow stairs to where the carved marble thrones stood, and then they waited.

Nikandros and his generals were the first to come. They were followed, as the sun rose towards noon, by hundreds of people from Ios itself—councilors, ambassadors, servants and scribes and the common people. The great hall of the Kingsmeet was filled with them all, and as the sun reached its zenith overhead, Nikandros stood before the Kingstone.

The crowd fell silent.

“Damianos of Akielos has come to claim his throne.”

Damen rose to stand upon the Kingstone itself, looking out over the sea of people, and they began to kneel before him, all the way to the farthest reaches of the hall. He bowed and allowed Nikandros to settle a laurel wreath upon his head, and then he settled on the throne. Laurent sat upon the smaller throne beside him, and Damen heard the tide of whispers that began to spread—a Veretian, seated next to their king?

The whispers died away, and Damen spoke. The curved hall of the Kingsmeet seemed to gather his voice and throw it out over the crowd, so that he barely had to raise his voice to be heard.

“You do me honor, to come to me today. I wish that I could have come to you under more joyous circumstances, but the tidings I bear are grim. Kastor, who took the throne as your king, betrayed you all. He tried to arrange my death, and the death of Prince Laurent of Vere. To my grief, the death of our father King Theomedes is laid also at his feet.”

He waited for the shouts of anger to fade. “Kastor has submitted himself today to face judgment.”

A pair of guards appeared at the end of the hall, leading Kastor between them. He was unbound and unarmed, his broken wrist wrapped tight, and he offered no resistance as he was led to the base of the dais and pushed, gently, to his knees.

“What have you to say to these charges?” Damen asked.

When he spoke, his voice was hoarse, but strong. “Kastor, son of Theomedes, would speak to those gathered here.” At Damen’s nod, he rose from his knees and turned to face the gathered crowd.

“My brother Damianos, the only trueborn son of King Theomedes...is unworthy to serve you as king. He has lived too long among the Veretians and has been poisoned by their perverse ways. He beds with them and allies with them; he has forgotten what it means to be Akielon. You see, even now he seats his Veretian catamite beside him.”

Damen made a sudden, abortive move to rise, gripping the marble arms of the throne, but a soft voice beside him stopped him.

“He wants a spectacle,” Laurent murmured. “Deny him.”

“It is true,” Kastor said, “that I sought the throne that tradition would have granted him. But what I have done has been in service of Akielos. I have no other defense to offer.”

“You have spoken a great deal and yet said very little,” Damen said. “This Veretian whom you have insulted is the one who saved my life when you sent your soldiers to have us killed. He guided our party through the Vaskian mountains when your allies attacked us on our journey. He protected my life when it may well have cost him his own. And I am not ashamed to say, before the scribes and the council and the whole of Akielos, that I love him.”

“You see?” Kastor thundered. “He admits that the Veretian controls him! If you let Damianos rule you, you will fall to Veretian rule within a year!”

Laurent spoke. “If you seek to accuse Damianos of Veretian influence, you should first explain these.” He drew a thin stack of letters from within his jacket and handed them to a waiting councilor. “These are letters in your own hand to Reynard of Vere, who sought to overthrow the kings of both our nations.”

Damen continued. “What reason would a Veretian usurper have to involve Akielos in this matter? What reason, save having the king of Akielos in his debt?”

“Lies,” Kastor said, an edge of desperation creeping into his voice. “These letters are forgeries; I know nothing of this Reynard!”

Damen ignored his protests. “We levy one final charge against Kastor: that he did, without remorse or mercy, kill King Theomedes as he lay ill.”

“And what of it?” Kastor demanded. “The ancients knew that when a king grew too old to fight, he should fall upon his sword to make way for a new king, a strong king.”

“Even the ancients did not murder their kings and call it honorable.” Damen drew in a steadying breath. “These crimes are damning, yet blood ties cry out for mercy. Kastor, for your crimes, you are exiled henceforth from Akielos and all its lands. Should you ever set foot here again, your life will be forfeit.”

Kastor was still shouting when the guards led him away. Damen watched him go and felt nothing. Even the grief of the night before had faded. This was justice, as close as could be found.

The people dispersed after that. In the morning, he would ride to Ios and begin the long process of setting his kingdom to rights.

His kingdom. It still felt like a fever-dream, impossible and strange. The reality would settle in slowly, he expected, like the weight of a crown.

The Kingsmeet was silent once more, empty save for the ever-watchful guards who stood around the edge of the dais. The sun was setting, lending the white marble columns a pale golden glow. Damen looked out onto the fields beyond Ios, where the tall grasses shivered in the evening breeze.

Laurent stood beside him, leaning comfortably against his shoulder as they watched the light fade.

“You told half of Ios that you loved me.”

“Yes, and that will not change, however far apart we may be.”

Laurent nodded. “Your people might prefer it if I returned to Vere, the better to free you from my ‘influence.’”

“They might,” Damen agreed. “But for my part, I would have you near me, always.”

Laurent reached down and twined his fingers with Damen’s. “Well, then. Who am I to deny my king?”