Damen sits on his stallion, to his father’s right. Makedon rides behind them and Kastor rides to their father’s left. They are only hours from the border and likely to be stopping soon. A rider was sent to Vere as soon as his father declared war all those months ago, so the Veretians should be meeting them shortly.
Of course, they would need time to gather their armies, and send out word to every blacksmith in the kingdom to prep their forges, and prepare all their people to be rationed, not just their soldiers.
Laurent was right. Summer is the month of advantage. Too hot to grow wheat and too hot for their heavy plate armor and too hot to fight. The Veretians’ morale will be low for these conditions alone.
He remembers like a slap across the face that their queen is sick. The Veretian royal family is known for keeping their private information close to their chests, as close as royalty can anyway. For it to be even rumored that the queen is sick would mean she has been so for some time. For Laurent to have this information at all is telling.
Damen understands why Laurent might share such information with him alone, even with it being his duty as a subject to share so with his King. Damen has lost his mother, just as Laurent has. Theomedes or even Kastor may abuse this information for their own gain. With a glance back at Makedon, as steel faced as ever, Damen cannot tell whether he’s aware of the information or not, but assumes if he’s said nothing thus far, then he likely does not plan to.
Damen wouldn’t call withholding such information treasonous—as far as warfare goes, this knowledge is useless—but it is definitely curious, and worth noting.
Damen thinks of what he does know of the Veretian royal family, for what little it’s worth.
Aleron is slowly going mad, so says word and action. Apparently Auguste is beginning to run the show behind the scenes, or so it appears by the fact that Auguste responses to their official letters when normally the ruling monarch would. Hennike is sick, a potentially long and ongoing illness.
Aleron fell into the descent to madness after losing his youngest son and his brother. The brother, Laurent V, hanged for killing his nephew, whom near to nothing is known about. If his wife is also sick, and her health is slowly failing, Damen can only see Aleron growing more unpredictable and aggressive.
Auguste is a shining star in his kingdom, much in the way Damen himself is. He is known for being levelheaded and charming. He is also rumored to have his deceased brother’s name tattooed upon his wrist.
Damen doesn’t know anything of the deceased prince. Vere hides their royal children until their coming of age at ten, once they’ve learned to hold their tongues and behave in public. By then, they are presented to their court and unofficially announced to the rest of the kingdoms, usually through the grapevine of travelling dignitaries and envoys. With the boy being murdered at four, nothing of his person ever reached anyone’s ears.
After their fifty days of mourning, they acted as though the young prince never even existed. Auguste is the only one Damen has ever heard to have cared for the boy, at least enough to get a tattoo in his memory. Allegedly.
Isander is riding Laurent’s mare around in a circle, like if she were in the round pin, while Laurent works on his archery. Laurent took them a ways out from the fort so they could have this privacy. Isander has gotten better at handling Laurent’s mare in the weeks they’ve been alone like this, a fact they’re both proud of.
Laurent hasn’t heard from Makedon yet, but they haven’t been at the border for even a month now.
Laurent looses his arrow and reaches for another. He’s just overthinking. He misses Makedon is all. Nothing has gone wrong, Makedon isn’t hurt, everything is fine. Laurent looses another arrow.
“Do you hear that?” Isander asks, pulling Laurent’s mare to a halt.
Laurent un-nocks his arrow and lowers his bow, listening.
It sounds like the rumble of thunder, but there isn’t a cloud in the sky. Laurent’s brows are furrowed, lips pursed.
Laurent ticks his mare over. He guides her with the reins to the target and hooks it to her side saddle, places his arrows back in their quiver strapped to his hip, and hooks his bow to its sling over his back. Isander scooches back on the saddle and Laurent hoists himself up. They make their way back to the fort.
The ride is a long one, with the distance Laurent tries to maintain. Stalking through the tall grass and cresting a hill, Laurent gasps when he sees all the horses and soldiers surrounding Karthas.
It looks as though everyone has just returned.
Laurent races harder and Isander clutches Laurent’s waist, face tucked into his back. It’s faster than Isander is used to, but Laurent really needs to return sooner. Laurent places a hand on top of Isander’s arm in apology, but he doesn’t slow down.
Laurent’s mare whinnies when they get closer, and he catches the attention of exactly the person he was looking for.
“Papa!” Laurent shouts, a smile breaking out across his face.
Makedon smiles too, and dismounts his stallion. The poor beast is getting old, and will be retired soon so he can live out his last few years with Tryphosa’s mare in peace. Tryphosa’s mare has turned almost completely white by this point in her life. Laurent’s mare will match one day.
Laurent brings her to a halt and dismounts, then he helps Isander down. Isander had fallen into a carefree role while they were alone, and especially when Laurent would ride them away from the fort; now he falls smoothly back into the role of slave. Laurent is impressed with his acting skills.
Makedon pulls Laurent into his arms, squeezing. “I missed you, boy.”
“I missed you too, Papa,” Laurent squeaks out, utterly crushed in Makedon’s arms. When Makedon releases him, he asks, “What are you all doing back so soon?”
Makedon sighs, a crooked smile on his lips. “Damianos asked if the Veretians would like to discuss a peaceful resolution or if they’d like us to take our lands back by force.”
Laurent nods, and assumes, hopes, Makedon is paraphrasing. It wouldn’t be very diplomatic for the future king to speak to another monarch in such a way. Then again, Laurent doesn’t know that much about Prince Damianos, only that he had excelled with his training in the south and that Theomedes Exalted gave him his own soldiers to command. Prince Damianos is clearly a fine warrior with a sound strategic mind, but he may be a terrible diplomat.
Makedon and Laurent head to the stables, Isander following close behind Laurent with his head bowed.
“This is only a stopping point, many of the men will be leaving tomorrow,” Makedon explains.
Laurent guides his mare into her stall. “What of the king and princes?”
“They are at Marlas. Nikandros was assigned as Kyros of Delpha; they are seeing that he settles in well.”
‘Settles in.’ They will be assigning him soldiers and slaves and servants to fill his fort. Explaining the trading routes to him. Giving him duties to oversee. Keeping him busy. It’s an honor, truly, but not really one Laurent thinks he himself would appreciate.
“What will become of border duty?” Laurent asks, as the next logical question.
Makedon shrugs. He leans his shoulder against the stall gate and crosses his arms. “I’ll have to coordinate with the new kyros. For now, the men will wait here for their next orders.”
Laurent nods and crosses his own arms. The border is farther away now, it’s true. Makedon will be farther away as well, if the new kyros agrees to allow them along Delpha’s border. There could also be revolts that will need to be settled quickly. Despite war being averted, these people and their parents were born Veretian, and now suddenly they must call themselves Akielon and swear fealty to a new royal line.
Laurent decides he should wait to mention his own border duty until after things have settled.
It’s a day before all the kyroi and their troops leave the grounds. It’s another week before the king, his sons, and all their men arrive.
Makedon gathers Laurent and they greet them upon their arrival.
Laurent takes a knee, and this time Theomedes lets Laurent stand without preamble. Laurent seems mildly pleased by this, but he’s gotten very good at hiding his emotions. A boy among men, and he just wants to belong.
Damianos has his eyes on Laurent, a smile touching his lips, and Makedon forces himself not to scowl.
It’d be one thing if Laurent showed a shared interest, but the boy is still a year from courting age, and has shown no special regard for anyone but his slave since the incident with that recruit a couple of years ago. For all Makedon knows, the boy has written off romantic love altogether.
Regardless, Makedon doesn’t want his boy rolling into bed with Damianos. He likes the prince well enough, sure, but Laurent deserves better than a pounce and bounce. Damianos will have to sow his wild oats elsewhere.
“Makedon, come speak with me,” Theomedes beckons, leaving his sons and men with Makedon’s steward to get their rooms arranged. Laurent stays with the princes, back straight and arms at rest by his side.
Makedon bites back a grumble and follows after his king.
Prince Kastor heads in with the steward, complaining about the long ride and how he’s ready to sleep in a real bed once more. Leaving Prince Damianos with Laurent. It’s early into the night, the sun fresh set and the fireflies barely out of their grassy beds. The air around them is dry, and Laurent’s mouth feels much the same.
Laurent takes the first steps, leading Prince Damianos to the stable to drop off his horse. “You must be tired after your trip,” Laurent says, for lack of anything better. He finds it hard to speak.
Prince Damianos nods. “Delpha is a farming province; there was little but empty land most the way here.”
And Laurent nods, because he knew that. “I hear from Papa that the Veretians agreed to peace talks?” He receives a smile and a nod. “If I may be so bold, how did they play out?”
Prince Damianos chuckles, and they find an empty stall for his stallion. “You don’t have to speak so formally with me, Laurent. Especially when it is only us,” he murmurs, his voice soft in the quiet.
Laurent glances around the stables, expecting to find a stable hand or two, maybe a servant covering last minute duties, but they are indeed alone. Laurent would find it odd, if he wasn’t sure that everyone made themselves scarce when they saw the prince coming.
Laurent puts space between him and Prince Damianos anyway, a forceful reminder to himself. The prince doesn’t view him that way. It is only a crush. He needs to get over it. “We are not so familiar with each other, my Prince,” Laurent dares to say, eyes cast aside.
“Well,” Prince Damianos says, and Laurent looks back up. Prince Damianos has a considering expression on his face. He is very tall. “We’ll just have to fix that, won’t we?” He smiles.
Laurent fights a blush, which would be easily noticed in the lantern lights. He tries not to overthink Prince Damianos’ words. They were said innocently enough. Why must Laurent add an infliction that wasn’t there? Why must his crush persist?
“Which of these is yours?” Prince Damianos asks, looking down the stalls.
“She’s down here,” Laurent says, leading Prince Damianos farther into the stables and around a corner. His mare is already covered with her blanket and on fresh hay, fast asleep. Laurent is constantly told what an odd one his horse is, but he likes to think she has a strong bond with him. “Sorry she’s asleep.”
Laurent gestures to her and Prince Damianos joins his side looking at his mare. “She’s beautiful,” he whispers, careful not to wake her.
Laurent appreciates it. “She’s a handful, but she’s mine.” He’s sure he has a smile on his face. “Mama and Papa bred their horses together and gave her to me. I was there when she was born.”
Prince Damianos nods, and they admire her in silence for another moment before Laurent steps away. “I’ll show you to your room. I’m sure you’re exhausted.”
“I am,” Prince Damianos agrees. “Tomorrow though, we can discuss what you missed at Delpha.”
He’s smiling, but Prince Damianos always seems to be smiling, so Laurent tries to think nothing of it.
Damen watches Laurent ride off with his slave and Makedon, targets and arrows and bows with them. Damen himself is riding off to Ios with Kastor and their father. Makedon and Laurent saw them off, but Laurent had to return to his training after a week of slacking to see to the royalty in his care.
Damen had tried to squeeze as much time in with Laurent that he could, and Laurent had been accommodating. Damen knows Laurent is, as of yet, still nearly a year away from his fifteenth spring.
The boy is impressive though. He will grow into a fine young man and make a wonderful addition to Damen’s court once he is crowned. Nikandros is probably right though; Damen may be coming to care more for Laurent than he should. When Laurent is older, maybe then he could pursue him; but for now, he will let the matter rest.
Plus, he gets the feeling Makedon doesn’t like him much, and Damen would rather not get on the bad side of one of his father’s generals.
With the unstable peace they’ve formed with Vere, Laurent figures now would be a good time to learn Veretian.
He was raised speaking it, until Makedon and Tryphosa took him in; then he had to learn Akielon. Since, his Veretian has slipped away, ultimately down to the accent Makedon keeps insisting he had. Laurent hasn’t spoken a word of Veretian since he was six, at most.
Practically speaking, he should be learning Patran. As their allied neighbor, it would be more to Laurent’s benefit to know that language. But he wants to go to the Veretian border, and knowing the language might convince Makedon to let him, even if he’s ordered to stay away from any fighting.
He can always learn Patran later.
A few years ago, Isander had expressed a wish not to learn any languages, when Laurent asked. When he asked if Laurent still wanted him to, Laurent had smiled and said no, and thanked Isander for his honesty. That had been the first time Isander had ever outright denied a request from Laurent, and Laurent had been so proud of him.
Isander has come a long way from shifting tones to convey his wishes. Now, when Laurent deems it safe to ask, Isander is open with his wishes and wants and needs.
Laurent has saved a lot of money over the years, the allowance Makedon has given him to do with as he pleased. It’s only a few thousand, not nearly enough to free Isander, but it’s a nice start. And with Isander coming free of the shackles of his training, so to speak, Laurent is confident that when the day comes, Isander will be able to make it without Laurent to guide him.
Laurent wants Isander free, but the thought of not having his only friend around anymore is…an upsetting one.
Laurent shakes his head, and forces himself from his mind. He’s getting too tangled up in his thoughts. Laurent pushes open Makedon’s door and wanders in, Isander trailing after him.
“Papa?” Laurent calls, peeking into the bedchamber when he doesn’t find him at his desk.
Makedon has a length of fabric hasty wrapped around his waist and he’s standing with a mirror to his back. He did not do a good job of covering anything but his waist.
Laurent narrows his eyes in suspicion. Makedon has done a very obvious job of covering something under that fabric.
“What are you hiding?” Laurent asks, his tone as telling as Makedon himself is.
Makedon becomes tight lipped, and drags his eyes over Laurent’s shoulder. Laurent hears shuffling feet and knows Isander was sent out of hearing range. For the best, Laurent is sure he’s about to start his first lesson in wrestling.
“Papa,” Laurent stresses. “What’s under the cloth?”
Makedon remains tight lipped for all of ten seconds before he lowers the fabric. Laurent sees the pink skin, depressed and scarred over but still relatively fresh. It could have been a knife, or maybe an arrow.
Laurent feels anger fill him more quickly than anything else, making his cheeks grow hot. “Why didn’t you tell me you were hurt?”
Makedon adjusts the fabric to wear it as a chiton, now that he has nothing he needs to hide. “I didn’t want you to worry.”
“What if you had died?” Laurent asks, voice growing louder as his rage rises. Laurent doesn’t know why he’s mad, but he thinks it may be betrayal and hurt mixed up within his chest. Why hadn’t Makedon thought to tell Laurent something so important?
Just the thought of some messenger coming to tell Laurent that Makedon had succumb to his wounds—Laurent’s throat grows tight and he forces his chin up. With fists clenched, Laurent leaves the room, Isander rushing after him.
“Laurent!” he hears Makedon call after him.
Laurent breaks into a run. He isn’t ready to face something like this. Losing Isander, losing Makedon. Hasn’t he already lost enough people in his life?
Isander follows Laurent into his room, then Laurent slams the door shut and jimmies a chair under the handle to keep everyone out. His eyes are wet, and his face feels hot. He’s pretty sure his hands are shaking.
Laurent turns at Isander’s soft voice. He’s standing in the middle of the room, his hand folded together and tucked close to his chest, and worry is etched onto his face.
Laurent opens his arms, his bottom lip wobbling, and Isander falls into them.
He’d just wanted to talk to Makedon about a Veretian tutor. Instead he finds out Makedon has been hiding a serious injury from him. It’s long and wide, the scarring is barely fresh. He’s clearly been hiding it for months.
Makedon had been at the border before the war was called; he probably got it then. That’s four months. He’s been keeping this from Laurent for four months!
A knock comes to the door, hesitant and gentle. “Laurent? Please talk to me.”
Laurent hears a sigh, and then a bit of groaning. The light under Laurent’s door is blocked by what’s likely Makedon’s butt.
“Go away, Papa,” Laurent mumbles into Isander’s shoulder. He’s pushed back his tears, but he feels drained for it.
“I’m not going away, Laurent. I’m not going to leave you alone.” As if he is completely alone. As if Isander doesn’t exist and isn’t here with Laurent right now. “But I’m willing to wait until you’re ready to talk to me.”
For a petty moment, Laurent doesn’t want to talk to him at all. But when Isander pets Laurent’s head, Laurent knows he’d prefer it be Makedon’s hand lending him comfort. If Makedon weren’t right outside the door, Laurent is sure Isander would point out as much.
Laurent pulls himself from Isander’s arms with a grateful smile and watches him head to bed for the night. He’s giving Laurent and Makedon privacy, and Laurent appreciates it.
Laurent sits beside the chair locking his door in place and leans his back against the cool wood. He doesn’t speak for the moment, but Makedon’s fingers reach under the door and brush Laurent’s own. Laurent takes the touch for what it is—a sign that Makedon is here for Laurent, in whatever small a way he has to be, but he is here.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, Laurent. I was healing well, and the physicians didn’t seem overly concerned after the first few days, so I didn’t see the need to worry you over nothing.” Makedon stops for a moment, and Laurent lets him gather his thoughts. “After losing your mother, I didn’t want you to be here alone worrying about losing me too. And once it was decided I was fine; I didn’t see the need for you to know at all. I preferred it. I didn’t want you to see me as weak, or think I’m too old to fight, or worry after my health.”
Laurent huffs a laugh. Of course Makedon would want to save face, especially in front of his son. He’d never want Laurent to see him as anything other than an invincible, powerful warrior. ‘The Champion of the North, who is said to only ever notch his belt for every one hundred Veretians he slays.’ Like Laurent used to see him when he was a child.
Laurent is grown now. He knows accidents happen; people slip up, sacrifice themselves for others, and any number of things can cause a warrior to catch a wound in battle.
Laurent himself accidentally stabbed someone the first time he used a real sword for sparring.
“What happened?” he finally asks.
Laurent falls asleep against his door that night, sitting with Makedon on the other side, and they only head for bed when Isander wakes up in the early hours of the morning to collect Laurent from the floor.
Laurent’s time has finally come! He’s sixteen, he’s finished his training, and he’s headed for the border like all the other recruits. He isn’t an official soldier; Makedon said he wanted to see if Laurent could handle the field before allowing that, but even so, his spirits are soaring.
Nikandros had been perfectly willing to allow Makedon passage through his lands to defend the border, on the condition Makedon be there to settle hostilities or riots within Delpha. Makedon had agreed. Laurent thought it reasonable.
Nikandros is a young kyros, one of the youngest to date. To negotiate himself an alliance such as this, and one so beneficial for both parties? Laurent thinks he will do well in his position.
Laurent will have to prove himself just as much as Nikandros has. Laurent will need to show the other soldiers and Makedon himself that he can fight the Veretians, and now any Vaskian bandits or raiders on their mountain border. Without flinching, without hesitation, without fear.
Nothing is happening.
He’s been out here for six weeks now, and nothing. No bandits, no riots, no skirmishes. Nothing.
Everyone takes turns patrolling, but there is nothing to patrol. Any bandits that may have come about were evidently farther up the mountain pass and out of the Akielon domain, and with the current, unsteady peace they’ve established with the Veretians, all that they share with them when passed is glaring, suspicious looks. Laurent has never been so bored.
Isander is at the fort. It was supposed to be safer than the border, but Laurent’s beginning to believe nothing is safer than the border. He hasn’t so much as seen someone trip.
Laurent sighs. He’s sitting on a log around one of the pit fires, dinner long gone and most the men already off in their bedrolls. All his life he’s looked forward to one day getting to come to the border, to be like Makedon and protect and defend his country. And in a way he is doing so, but it is not at all like what his imagination made it out to be.
This is not how he imagined spending his time.
“Here, son,” Makedon says, handing Laurent one of the pints in his hands. He sits beside Laurent on the log. Laurent thought he had gone to bed some time ago.
Laurent sniffs the contents of the pint and nearly reels back when the sting of griva hits his nose. They use the water from the nearby creek sparingly, so this isn’t watered down like Laurent normally drinks it. Laurent takes a sip anyway.
“I know this isn’t what you hoped it would be,” Makedon starts, taking his own sip.
Laurent stares off into the fire, giving a shrug, taking a swig. “At least no one is getting injured, I suppose.”
Makedon nods. He stares into the fire for a moment, then, “If you would rather return to the fort, no one would blame you.”
Yes, they would, Laurent thinks bitterly, taking a few of gulps of griva. They would laugh and scoff and say he is running home with his tail between his legs, too scared to get in a real fight where Daddy can’t keep him safe.
“Some of the men will be returning early anyway,” Makedon continues. “They’ll be heading to Ios for the summer games.”
Laurent takes another sip of griva. He can feel the muscles in his body growing lax with the alcohol. His tongue and wits as much so. Straight griva is very strong. “Will you be one of those men?”
Makedon smirks. “I don’t have anyone to cheer for at the games.”
Laurent feels as though he’s being led somewhere, but he may be too tipsy to get there right now. He’s such a light weight; he’ll need to work on that. His brows furrow. “You could still go. You haven’t been to the summer games in a long time.”
Makedon smiles. “I’m too old to compete, and I see men and women push to prove themselves all the time.” He shrugs and gulps down the rest of his drink.
Laurent does the same.
Makedon sits the pint down in the grass and slaps his knees. “Well. If you can come up with a better reason, I’ll think about going.”
Laurent nods and raises his empty pint to see Makedon off.
He considers getting up and getting more griva from the barrels Makedon keeps by his tent, then thinks better of it. He has patrols after the dawn group, he shouldn’t go looking for a hangover.
Laurent flops over the back of the log, his legs still laying over the top, and stares up at the stars. His leathers are starting to irritate and chafe at him. They’re too new and his skin too sweaty. Laurent sighs and begins to unstrap his shoulders. No one is awake but night patrol and the lookouts around the camp. No one is going to care if Laurent stumbles to his tent half naked and drunk.
He wonders what it would be like to compete in the summer games. He knows the first day starts with a parade, usually soldiers. Usually the Southern soldiers. Sometimes Makedon will take his men down to the capital and join. Usually they’re too busy.
But there’s nothing happening at the border. They aren’t busy at all.
The realization comes on Laurent slowly, his thoughts addled by griva and fatigue. With nothing happening at the border, Laurent could go to the games this year. He’s of age to compete, and he has the skill to do so. And returning home with a win or two under his belt wouldn’t hurt his standing with the soldiers.
That sours Laurent’s mood once more.
He’s always trying to prove himself to one person or another. Why can’t he just be good enough as he is?
He decides more griva can’t hurt after all.
Something is shoving into his side, repetitively. Laurent groans and blinks his eyes open, expecting to find Makedon standing over him, kicking at Laurent to wake him up.
He’s met with the tip of a blade instead.
It’s not the first time he’s woken up this way, if Makedon is looking for an early morning bout before the rest of the soldiers rise, but the native woman on the other end is new, roughly clothed in animal furs and her dark curls tied back from her face. She’s frowning down at him, eyes narrowed.
“Get up. Slow,” she says in stilted, heavily accented Akielon.
Laurent rises slowly, taking note that she is fairly relaxed in his presence and that she is clearly not Akielon. A Vaskian woman then, perhaps? They are close to the mountains. Too much skin showing to be Veretian.
Laurent keeps quiet for the moment, and the woman grabs his arm to drag him out of his tent; taking him away from where his father and the rest of the soldiers are sat, roped up and gagged, guarded by several women with sharp swords and arrows pointed at them. He meets Makedon’s eyes, and sees the worry shining in them as Laurent is dragged farther away from the group. The women must have attacked during the night and slowly worked their way through the camp.
Laurent is brought passed the line of tents before a woman, probably close to Makedon’s age, sat on a bay roan mare, with several more women around her. She looks down her nose at him. Her dark hair is held back by a tie as well, though her hair looks considerably thicker than the woman’s by his side.
The older woman, still well within her prime, unsheathes her sword and uses the tip of the blade to lift his chin, then to turn his head by his cheek. It’s with the flat, so she doesn’t cut his skin.
“Veretian,” she says, in Vaskian, and it’s one of the dialects Laurent knows well. “He is dressed almost as one of the Akielon soldiers, not a slave. And he lacks the collar. Odd.”
“He was in one of their tents,” the woman holding his arm tells her.
Laurent wonders if they’d believe him a slave. He’s seen Isander and the other slaves all his life, he knows how to play the part. But would that truly be to his advantage? He hadn’t noticed any of the other slaves around the camp. He has a passing worry for where they may be, what might have become of them.
Laurent clears his throat and the woman on the horse turns her dark eyes on him. “Are you in charge?”
Her lips quirk when he speaks her language. “That I am.”
“Perhaps you and I could negotiate the safety and freedom of the men and women here, then?”
She blinks, then throws her head back in a laugh. Then dismounts. She waves away her woman and throws her arm around Laurent’s shoulders. “What is your name, boy?”
“I’m Laurent.” He inclines his head to her to be polite. He doesn’t want to offend the woman holding his people hostage.
“I am Halvik, leader of this clan.” She leads Laurent back to the soldiers. “How did you come to be with the Akielons?” She gestures to the men corralled together like cattle.
She brings them to a halt, standing just yards away from the men, and pets Laurent’s hair. More than a few men are watching with either hatred or suspicion burning in their eyes. All directed at Laurent. Laurent is careful not to let them see how much that hurts him.
“I was raised here, after my Veretian family left me to die at the border,” Laurent explains, then turns his eyes to her.
She hums, fingering his hair. “What brings you here?”
Laurent holds her eye as he says, “My father is the leader of the men here.”
“Is that so?” She asks, her eyes shifting to look over the group. “Point him out.”
Laurent has a brief worry that she will just outright kill Makedon if he does that. His hesitation must show, because she looks at him, and laughs. “How are two leaders to negotiate when the other half is held captive?”
Laurent sees the whimsy in her eyes, that she finds all of this far too humorous. She would kill them all and walk away with the same cat like pleasure on her face that she has now. She is a lioness toying with her prey. Laurent isn’t so easily played with, she’ll find. “I’ll need your word you won’t kill him.”
She grins, her hand letting go of his hair to curl back around his shoulders. “What’s a word worth among strangers?”
“It’s worth my father’s life, at the very least.”
She chuckles, low in her throat, and pulls Laurent closer. “Alright, boy, you have my word. I won’t kill your father.”
She holds her free hand out to seal the deal, but Laurent isn’t so quick to trust her wording. Vask is closer to Vere than Akielos, after all. “He won’t be killed by your people either.”
Her smiles falls away, and Laurent watches her reassess him. She gives a subtle nod, finally taking Laurent seriously. “You have my word, Laurent.”
Laurent lifts his finger and points out Makedon, praying he is not being deceived and sentencing his father to death in one fell swoop. Halvik breaks away from him, touching his shoulder to stay in place when he moves to follow, and walks up to Makedon. She bends over to take his chin between her fingers and turn him to face her. His expression is thunderous were hers is bordering on seductive. “This one?”
Halvik straightens and removes a dagger from the back of her belt, and Laurent feels his whole body grow tense with fear. Her actions sets off most, if not all, of the soldiers around her, fighting to save Makedon from whatever fate she has in store for him. Makedon is unmoving, unflinching. She only cuts his bindings loose.
Makedon removes the gag from his mouth and rises to his full height, nearly a head taller than Halvik.
Halvik is still smirking, and gestures for Makedon to follow her from the soldiers and back to Laurent.
When Halvik goes to place her arm around Laurent’s shoulders again, Makedon grabs him instead and jerks Laurent into his side, away from her. She only chuckles.
“You’ve traded up in family I see.”
Laurent’s face flushes and he turns his eyes to his feet. She tips his chin up again. She’s a very touchy-feely person. This is probably the most Laurent has ever been touched by a woman, other than his mother, in his life.
“It’s unfortunate you are male. You would have made a beautiful woman. You have very long eyelashes. Like a cow. And the muscles of a fine archer.” She pinches his triceps and deltoids. Then she pats his cheek and moves on. “You will translate.”
“Very well,” Laurent agrees. “Let’s start with why you’re here.”
Halvik rests her hands on her hips. She’s smirking again. “We were paid to attack the Akielon camp by the mountains. We assumed that was you.” She says this as if they are not the only Akielon camp for miles in any direction.
Laurent wonders if the other two camps along Delpha’s border have to deal with anything close to this. “Who paid you? Why?”
“Some Veretians,” she shrugs. “They met our outriders with a message and a few bags of gold.”
She chuckles again, tilting her head. “Who’s to say? Perhaps they just wanted the Akielons out of what they see as their territory.”
Laurent’s brows furrow. “They can’t do that. There’s a treaty.”
“Now, Laurent,” she says. “Do you see any Veretians here? They haven’t broken the treaty, as far as law is concerned.” She folds her arms, lips falling into a flat line. “And I’m very sorry to inform you, but my people and I still have our end of the bargain to honor.”
Laurent steps closer to her, into her space, just as she goes for her dagger. He grabs her wrist as she attempts to slice his throat open. Makedon steps in, and Halvik’s women do the same, holding Makedon back at sword point. She’s stronger than Laurent is, more experienced, but this is the most action Laurent has seen in far too long, the first time he’s felt adrenaline pumping through his veins in months. He grins at her, wild at the edges. “What if I told you we could offer you something better than gold?”
Her arm stops fighting him, her eyes assessing, always calculating, and she holds her free hand up to halt her women. Laurent shoots a quick glances at Makedon, and he stands down.
“Speak fast, Akielon,” she spits, almost as an insult. Her face is guarded, eyes hardened. She’s ready to pick back up where they left off without a moment’s hesitation.
“Gold is all well and good, until it runs out,” he starts. She raises a brow. “We have something the Veretians wouldn’t even think to offer.” Laurent leans closer, smirking. “We have very large men, strong men. Good for breeding strong females.”
Halvik truly pauses then, and Laurent continues.
“Daughters last a lifetime; a few bags of gold will only last you a few months. Gold isn’t much use either, unless you catch a caravan you aren’t planning to rob. Veretians wouldn’t lay with you, even if they wanted to. They won’t risk a bastard.”
Halvik takes her arm from his grasp, then tucks her dagger back into its sheath. She gives Makedon a side eye, one Laurent would dare to interpret as interest. “You make a very good point, Laurent. But will your father allow that?”
Laurent turns to Makedon. “They were paid by Veretians. I offered our men at the coupling fires for the night in exchange for them leaving us be.” Laurent pauses, looking meaningfully at Makedon. “With your approval, of course.”
Makedon’s lips press together. “Veretians, huh?” He tugs at his beard, as he’s prone to do. “Whoever wishes to join the fires, may. You and I will discuss this further later, once the Vaskians have left and our men have recovered from their hakesh hangovers.”
“Of course, Papa.” Laurent turns to Halvik and gives her a nod. “Any who wish to join you are allowed to go. You have the night.”
Halvik’s smile borders on wicked, and she signals her women to release all the soldiers.
Laurent catches her as she starts to walk away, his hand wrapping around her arm. “What of the slaves?”
Her lips tighten at the corners. Vere and Vask are not slave cultures like Akielos and Patras, and it shows in their opinions on slavery. “Once we’d killed you all, we planned for free them of their binds and release them.”
Laurent frowns. “They’d die. They have no skill sets aside from reciting poetry, playing an instrument, or rolling over in a bed; some may know a second language—those with any education to speak of. They couldn’t defend themselves in the wild, nor do they have the confidence to deny anyone anything. You’d have been kinder to kill them with us.”
“Is that the only solution once you’ve broken them, then? Death?”
Laurent shakes his head. “They need to regain their confidence and learn a trade or useful skill. They would be outcasts in Vere and useless in Vask without one or the other.”
Halvik hums, her dark eyes turning out to the lands around them as she thinks through his words, then she nods. “A shrewd observation. I’ll keep that in mind the next time I steal slaves,” she says through a grin. “As it is, a promise is a promise, and your slaves will be returned to you.”
Makedon returns to camp the next morning with a hangover and a mix of stale hakesh and griva on his tongue. His back also aches from being dug into the hard ground and his hip is stiff from thrusting for hours on end, but he overall had a very pleasant night. Halvik is a wild woman. Their time together may have lacked words, but their bodies spoke the same language.
When Makedon enters his tent that morning, Laurent is inside, removing his patrol leathers and sitting them by the sand table on his desk.
Laurent doesn’t look up from his task as he smirks and mocks, “I take it you enjoyed your night out?”
“I take it you enjoyed your morning laps?”
Laurent’s brows furrow, and he looks up. “I just got back from patrol. I haven’t done any laps.”
Makedon stares into Laurent’s eyes until he registers Makedon’s meaning. Laurent grumbles as he jogs off to the edges of the encampment to begin running. Makedon goes through his pack to find some mint leaves to chew on, anything to get rid of this taste.
Auguste is at the border around this time of year. He’d be at Ravenel though. That’d easily be three day’s ride west, maybe four if the weather is poor. He’d need to send a messenger ahead if he wants an audience with the prince, and not be attacked on sight.
With a sigh, Makedon sits down at his table and puts ink to parchment. This situation must be dealt with promptly, and to put it off only invites rising tensions and a potential for further conflict.
Laurent enters the tent again while Makedon is dripping wax onto the back folds. He stands by Makedon’s side, opposite the messenger, and waits as he presses his signet ring in. He passes it over. “Wait for us outside their fort. Take two more men with you.”
The soldier nods, taking the letter and tucking it into a satchel, then he departs.
Laurent takes the seat opposite him. “What was that?”
“A letter to Crown Prince Auguste at Ravenel,” Makedon tells him, slapping his knees and standing. He’s begun slapping his knees a lot lately. “I plan to tell him what happened, and that should it happen again, there will be retaliation.” Makedon walks over to his pack and places it on the table.
Laurent remains seated, staring into the sand and lost in thought. Makedon leaves him to it while he straps on his leathers. He grabs a few extra chitons and puts them in his pack, but he doesn’t need much else. They shouldn’t be gone for much more than a week.
“When do you leave?”
Makedon looks up at Laurent, taking his hand out of his pack. “Now.”
Laurent tugs at his necklace coin, then straightens in his seat. It’s just the barest bit, but Makedon has noticed as he gets older, he shows these small signs of self-assurance when he voices his opinion. Makedon is glad to see him coming out of his shell; he’s a smart boy, but he doesn’t share his intelligence with the world often enough.
“What if we leave tomorrow, and you take all the men and women planning to go to the summer games with us? We can all head for Ios after dealing with the Veretians.”
Makedon smirks. “We?”
A blush comes to Laurent freckled cheeks and he glances down. There goes his short-lived confidence. Makedon chuckles.
“I…was thinking about competing,” Laurent mumbles, kicking his sandal into the grass under his chair.
Makedon sits across from Laurent, his packing paused for the moment. “What do you think you’ll compete in?”
Laurent is still blushing, but his eyes hold Makedon’s. “Archery. Horse racing.” He shrugs. “Sword fighting?”
“Are you asking me?” Makedon raises a brow.
Laurent’s eyes narrow. “No. I’m going to do it.”
Makedon holds Laurent’s gaze for a moment, sees the determination shining in his baby blues. Makedon smiles. “Very well. I’ll let the men know and we’ll set out at first light. We’ll stop by Karthas on the way and pick up our essentials.”
A grin breaks out over Laurent’s face, reaching up to his eyes.
“I’ll watch our backs; you can’t trust Veretians. Not when they’ve had days to prepare an attack,” Laurent says, leading seven other men on horseback to the back of the group, all their swords at their hips and bows at the ready in their hands.
Makedon nods and walks his horse passed the men to greet the prince and his small group of guards. They’re just exiting their fort’s gates on horseback.
It’s a true show of trust between them that the prince comes out without armor on, compared to his men around him, fully decked in plate. Makedon himself is in his leathers, but his sword rests easy in its sheath at his hip.
Auguste watches over Makedon shoulder, and Makedon glances to see what’s caught his eye. He finds nothing that should stick out. It would make him suspicious, except that if there was to be an attack, Auguste would be a truly poor Veretian to put Makedon on edge beforehand.
“Something interesting about my men, Prince?”
His blue eyes do not shift. “You’ve brought many with you, General.”
“You’re only a stop on our way to Ios.”
Auguste hums, the slight rolling off him like a raindrop down a leaf, and he continues looking off. “What of the blond, at the back?”
Makedon doesn’t need to turn to know he means Laurent. “That would be my son.”
Auguste’s eyes turn to him then, giving him a once over. He’s polite enough not to point out the obvious. “I didn’t know blonds were born in Akielos.”
Makedon is growing tired of the small talk. It isn’t what he’s here for. “They can be. I’m not here to speak of my son, Prince,” his tone mildly impatient.
He’ll show the prince a modicum of respect, he’s at least more level-headed than his father, but he’d be happier not in the company of Veretians.
Auguste’s horse kicks the dirt and he tightens the reins around his fist. “Yes, of course. Your letter was short. Could you elaborate on what happened?”
Makedon goes into the details again, how the Vaskians snuck into their camp in the dead of night and nearly killed them all. “Had my boy not known the Vaskian dialects, we’d be dead, and you’d have a war on your hands. How fortunate for you that wasn’t the case.”
Auguste’s lips are pinched, his eyes narrowed as he listens. “Very fortunate indeed,” he says, voice low, thoughts elsewhere. He straightens. “I apologize for these transgressions, General.”
“You will be, if it happens again,” Makedon cuts in, turning his horse to leave. “You’ve been spared of war twice in two years, Prince, but don’t think for a second my men and I wouldn’t enjoy putting another notch in our belts.”
Auguste looks annoyed now, taking a glance down at the belt around Makedon’s hips, well-worn and dotted several times over with notches of the Veretians slain by his sword. “I’ll see to it myself that those who violated the terms of our peace treaty will be punished.” He turns his horse without another word, and he and his men head back to their walls.
Makedon watches them go, then returns to his own men. He whistles, and Laurent looks over at him, pulling his mare off to join his side.
Laurent watches over his shoulder as the prince and his guards enter the fort, their gate closing once more. “So, that was the infamous Crown Prince Auguste?”
Makedon nods, and they all head for Karthas.
“Was he like they say?”
Makedon looks over at Laurent. His eyes are forward, stance at ease. “It wasn’t a very long conversation, but he seems fine. He responded calmly under provocation.”
Laurent nods, like that should be expected of a prince, and Auguste has passed a minor test. Makedon smirks. He retrieves his flask from his saddle bag and takes a swig of griva. He holds it out to Laurent, then laughs when Laurent wrinkles his nose and declines.
So close, yet so far. Lol. Do you guys hate me yet?
Before we get started: I don't own a horse, and I never have. I tried to make Laurent's connection with his mare very strong, but it may come across stronger than a horse would be in literally any real world circumstance. I'm okay with this, but I wanted to warn anyone who is aware of horse behavior. Please don't @ me. Thanks, babes. ;D
Damen looks to the doors of the throne room when the guards open them. He straightens and places his hands behind his back. Makedon walks in with Laurent at his side, Laurent’s little slave prostrating at the entrance.
Makedon has an orange cloak over his shoulders, his house insignia pressed into the pin. Laurent, identically, has a deep blue cloak around his shoulders, the same pin in his clothes. Laurent has gotten taller in the last two years, his features more defined. Damen’s throat goes dry at the sight of him.
He tries to catch his breath when they kneel for his father.
“Rise,” Theomedes bids.
His breath is gone once he gets another look at Laurent. His blond hair is nearly white from being bleached by the sun, contrasting beautifully with his skin, not dark at all and with a smattering of freckles on his nose and cheeks. Damen swallows, thick, and wonders if he has freckles on his shoulders too.
“Exalted,” Makedon says, walking up to the throne. Laurent falls back and waits by the doors with his slave. “I come baring news from the north.”
Laurent became of age for courting last year. Damen wonders how many offers he’s received already. With a beauty and mind like his, it has to be dozens. With no small amount of jealousy, Damen wonders how many he’s accepted already. Laurent catches his eye, then looks away, pink coming to his cheeks.
“What of it?”
“Veretians paid a Vaskian tribe to slaughter my men at the border during the night.”
Damen’s attention snaps to the conversation.
Theomedes comes to his feet, fury taking over his features. “They what?” he demands.
Makedon holds up a hand to calm him. “It has been handled, my King. I thought to warn you, should it happen again, however.”
Theomedes takes a breath, and sits back down. His hands are in fists over the arm rests of his throne. “Tell me what happened. I want every detail, no matter how minuscule.” His eyes cut to Damen, then over to Kastor at his other side. “Leave us.”
Damen nods to his father, and walks out, Kastor following after him.
Damen catches Laurent’s eye again as he passes, and Laurent’s blush returns. He leaves feeling pleased with himself.
Laurent is shown to his guest room, only a bedchamber and main chamber, opposite Makedon’s, and slaves bring his belongings in behind them. The meeting with the king was a lot of repeating the same story over again, going over details to prevent similar incidents from happening twice, and a letter of urgency sent to Prince Auguste for him to formally visit Ios to improve relations. That had been Laurent’s suggestion.
King Theomedes had initially been against it, until Laurent explained that, even by ship, he wouldn’t arrive until after the summer games. The people will still be on a high from the festivities, but foreign royalty won’t be at the event itself to take attention away from the competitors. It would be the best time to have him visit.
Makedon had laughed and smacked Laurent’s back for the suggestion.
Laurent steps over to his window—wide and with white, gauzy curtains—and takes in his view. He’s right above the training grounds, packed to the brim and then some with men and women training for the games. And he can see Prince Damianos sparring with Nikandros. He must have come to enjoy the games. Most Kyroi have, but Nikandros is new; Laurent half expected him to hang back this year to focus his attentions on Delpha.
Isander steps up to Laurent’s side and takes the house pin from his cloak, then catching the cloak before it falls. He smiles as he walks away, and when Laurent looks back down, Prince Damianos is gazing up at him.
Laurent turns away when Makedon’s voice rings through the room. He steps away from the window. “Yes, Papa?”
Makedon comes in, closing the door behind himself. Laurent catches a glimpse of palace guards standing outside his door. His brows furrow, but he doesn’t ask. They are guests, and there are many visitors.
He catches the pouch thrown at him before it connects with his face, glaring at Makedon.
Makedon is grinning.
Laurent bounces the burlap between his hands. It chinks, heavy with coin. He casts his gaze back to Makedon, raising a brow.
“Call it a bonus,” he says, shrugging. “For all our good work at the border.”
“Our?” Laurent jokes, smirking.
“I helped with the trade off,” he defends.
“So you get laid and half the reward?”
Makedon laughs, but he doesn’t deny it. He snatches the bag from Laurent’s hand. “Come on, boy. We’re headed to town.”
Damen can see Laurent and Makedon at the stables, collecting their horses. The thought of Laurent leaving again, already, upsets him more than it has any right to. Makedon is jovial as usual, and loud as usual, when they ride off.
“They aren’t leaving,” Nikandros says, passing a waterskin to Damen. “Laurent came with his slave.”
And Laurent wouldn’t leave without his slave. So he’ll be back. Damen takes a sip, still watching, and passes the skin back to Nikandros. “Are they staying for the games?”
Kastor snatches the skin instead. “That’s what Father says.” Then he drinks. “Apparently the Veretian is competing.”
“He’s Akielon, Kastor,” Damen chides him. Laurent and Makedon leave his line of sight, and Damen turns to his brother. “Do you know what he’ll be competing in?”
His lack of interest is disappointing, if not surprising. Damen sighs.
Kastor’s eyes narrow. “Why do you care?”
“Take a guess,” Nikandros answers, unhelpfully.
And…Damen cannot dispute their claims, so he says nothing at all, which is just as damning as if he’d denied it.
Kastor rolls his eyes, wandering away. He isn’t competing; he has no need to train.
“If Laurent is competing, shouldn’t he be out here with everyone else?”
Nikandros taps his sword against Damen’s, stepping back into position. Damen mirrors him. “I’m sure Makedon will have him out here in the morning, before the sun has even reached the horizon.”
Damen frowns, and the fight starts.
Damen thinks back to a couple of years ago, coming out here with Nikandros and expecting to have the grounds to themselves, but Laurent was out here already, shooting arrows, and Makedon overseeing him. He’s served at the border; Makedon wouldn’t have taken him there unless he thought Laurent could handle himself.
Evidently he can. “Do you know what happened to Makedon and his men?”
Nikandros’ expression is grim, thrusting his sword forward. “I have thirdhand accounts, no better than rumor.”
Damen swipes at his head, forcing Nikandros back. “I heard Makedon tell Father that Vaskians were paid by Veretians to slaughter them in the night.”
“I heard,” Nikandros starts, working his way into Damen’s guard. “That Laurent traded daughters for freedom.” At his blank look, Nikandros says, “Sex, Damen.”
Damen blocks a strike, shoving Nikandros away, sending him stumbling back. Damen swipes his leg out and Nikandros falls. He puts the point of his sword to Nikandros’ neck, frowning. “Does he…reserve his affections for women?” The Vaskians are a matriarchal society. The men would have killed them outright; the women like to tease their victims first.
“It matters not. Makedon will not let you near enough to his son to find out.” Nikandros shrugs, pushing the tip away and reaching his hand out.
Damen helps him to his feet.
“Up and at ‘em, boy!” Makedon shouts, throwing open Laurent’s curtains.
Laurent rolls over with a groan, one eye barely squinted open, and looks out the window, only to see the stars still in the sky. He turns to Makedon, his bottom lip pouted out. “Why do you hate me?”
Makedon chuckles. “I love you, that’s why I’m getting you up now. Quickly, we’re running behind.”
Seeing no point in arguing, Laurent climbs out of bed, leaving Isander to try and go back to sleep. Isander blinks bleary, tired eyes up at Laurent, then closes them and burrows back under the sheet; it’s too hot for anything heavier.
Laurent dresses, grabs his bow and sword, straps his sword belt around his hips, then the quiver, and he and Makedon set out.
Laurent doesn’t question it when he’s taken out to the stables, nor that Makedon doesn’t even pause to let them tack their mounts. He’s still muttering about them being late. Laurent isn’t sure what they’re late for, but he’s comfortable with his mare enough that he is sure she won’t let him slip off her side.
He steers her behind Makedon’s stallion, then they set off from the palace and the city, heading out for the empty land outside the city gates and off the King’s road. Away from prying eyes.
Laurent is awake by the time they’ve reached their destination, if disgruntled. They dismount, and Makedon passes coin off to a man setting up targets. The man nods and guides the horses a short way off, putting bits in their mouths, bridles over their heads, and the reins over their necks. He’s keeping watch on them.
His mare is fussy at the exchange, but she calms down soon enough.
“There are markers in the ground. Run two laps around them,” Makedon instructs.
Laurent spends his morning stretching, running, sparring. He practices his archery, at varying levels of challenge, until the sun is high in the sky and his thighs and arms are trembling.
“We’ll head back now. You’ve earned a nice, hardy lunch and a short break.”
Laurent nods, and whistles his mare over, too weak to walk all the way over, lest his knees give out.
“Hmm,” Makedon hums as he watches Laurent, then mounts his stallion. “You know what, take the whole afternoon off. We’ll come back tonight to work on your archery.”
Laurent hums his agreement, and tries to get onto his horse. To little avail.
When his feet hit the ground after the first attempt, then the second, she whinnies, shaking out her mane. Laurent squats to the ground, his hand catching him when he tips, and she gets her front hooves under her, then lowers her butt to the ground so she’s lying for him. A chuckle slips from his lips as he mounts her, petting her neck. “I’ll bring you a couple of apples tonight, girl.”
He’s slumped over her body by the time they make it back to the stables, and pours off her side. Makedon catches him when he stumbles. “Steady, boy,” Makedon says, voice low, hand on Laurent’s back.
Laurent looks over and sees Prince Damianos rushing over, Nikandros right behind him.
Laurent gets his knees righted under him, and forces a stillness into his muscles that makes his body hum.
Makedon answers for him. “Worked a little too hard this morning. Nothing to concern yourself with, Damianos.” It’s as dismissive as it sounds, edged with a warning.
Prince Damianos’ eyes slide from Makedon to Laurent and back. His lips are pressed tight, brows pulled together. He looks like he wants to disagree, or maybe agree and scold Makedon for it, but he holds his tongue and takes a step back.
Laurent at least appreciates the worry shining in his eyes.
Damen watches Makedon guide Laurent back into the palace, walking the edges of the training grounds. People keep sending glances their way, laughing under their breath at Laurent’s shaky form.
Nikandros casually rests his hand on the pommel of his sword. “You know what he’s doing, right?”
Damen nods. He’s not pleased, but he can’t deny that he’s impressed. “They don’t see Laurent training. They don’t know his skills or limits. Makedon is letting them underestimate him.”
Many of these competitors are visiting, under the banner of their respectful kyros. They haven’t seen Laurent before. Damen would wager even the men who have don’t know how much he’s improved since his last visit. And Damen is positive he’s improved since his last visit.
“Do you want to follow them the next time they head out?”
Damen’s eyes go wide, and he turns to Nikandros. He’s got a tilt to his lips, like he’s challenging Damen. Daring him to say no.
Damen doesn’t say no to many challenges. Nikandros hasn’t shown a mischievous streak since before the Kingsmeet, who is Damen to deny him this? “How are we supposed to know the next time they head out?”
The knock at the door startles Isander. He glances at Laurent, sleeping like the dead, then rises from the chaise and heads quietly to answer it.
Finding Prince Damianos and his friend on the other side sends a nervous squeak out his mouth. His knee jerk reaction is to close the door, but he catches himself, and instead falls to his knees, forehead to the floor. “Exalted,” he whispers.
“Rise, we only wish a word.”
Isander rises, and keeps his eyes down. He hasn’t been addressed directly by the royal family since the day he was picked by King Theomedes to serve Laurent. A trickle of nerves crawl up his spine. “I apologize, but my master is sleeping right now. If it is urgent—”
“No, no,” Prince Damianos says, lowering his own voice. He glances into the room over Isander’s head, but Laurent’s bedchamber is on the other side and out of view. “We wanted a word with you.”
“Of-of course…” Isander steps out into the hall, closing the door carefully behind himself. He can feel sweat starting to gather at the back of his neck, so he takes a breath to calm his racing heart. He folds his hands in front of himself, head bowed.
“We have a question,” the friend says. Isander believes his name is Nikandros. The new kyros of Delpha.
“I shall answer to the best of my abilities.”
“We just wanted to know the next time Laurent and Makedon are planning to leave for his training,” Prince Damianos says.
Isander squeezes his fingers together. “I apologize, but I cannot betray my master’s confidence.”
“Even to your prince?”
Isander’s hands are shaking. He bows his head lower. “I apologize,” he manages to get out, his throat tight, voice weak.
One of them hums, their feet shifting in his view.
A finger tips his chin up, and Isander is terrified, even with the prince’s charming smile aimed at him. He doesn’t dare meet his eyes. “We were never here, understood, little one?”
Isander knows, even as he agrees with the prince, he’ll still tell Laurent of their visit.
They walk off, and Isander stays in the hall, waiting for the snap of their sandals to fade away.
Makedon opens his door, and leans against the frame. Isander’s cheeks heat under his gaze. Makedon frowns at Isander, then glances down the hall. “Don’t worry about telling Laurent. I’ll handle it.”
Isander feels a heavy weight taken off his shoulders. He offers Makedon a hesitant smile, then returns to Laurent’s side.
Makedon passes the coins off, two hands this time, and the men take Makedon’s stallion aside.
Laurent is better after a couple of meals and a long nap. Rejuvenated. Makedon smiles and pats his mare’s side. He looks up at Laurent. “Red markers, on trees this time. Hit all the targets. The course is over when you see a yellow marker. Leave the targets and arrows.” He smacks the mare’s hip, and she takes off into the woods.
Laurent sits astride her back, quiver strapped to his thigh, arrows aplenty, bow poised.
Then he turns his gaze to the trees on the hill some ways beside them. They’re sparser, but that is the only place to hide and have a view.
He whistles his stallion over, and rides their way.
He commends Damianos and Nikandros for not even bothering to run. They stay sitting on their tree branches, their horses tied off farther back, looking apprehensive. He holds Damianos’ eyes. “Next time you sneak a word with Laurent’s slave, make sure Laurent’s father isn’t in his own room. Right across the hall.”
They jump down, hitting the ground with equally heavy thuds. They appear appropriately chastised.
Makedon glances over his shoulder, and sees Laurent is already back, talking with the men who set up the course. He sighs, turning his stallion. “Well, you’re here now. Grab your horses and join us. Having an audience may add an extra bit of challenge for him.”
He doesn’t bother to see if they followed him over. If they were so curious they resorted to espionage—poor espionage—then they’ll take the invitation without argument. Laurent looks at him when he returns, then over his shoulder.
He raises a brow. “Are…they here for a reason?” he asks.
“Yes.” Makedon keeps his stallion headed into the woods. Laurent, and their audience, trail after him.
Makedon follows the markers as Laurent did, at a slower pace, and checks his aim of the targets. They’re small, half the size of a practice target. He removes arrows as he goes, not a word whispered from anyone.
When they return, Makedon passes Laurent the arrows. “Two were off-center. Only one was a bullseye. Based off the angle, I’d say it was a lucky shot.”
Laurent nods, taking the criticism in stride, and restocks his arrows. “Again?”
“Again,” he agrees. “Faster.”
Laurent kicks his mare into motion, bow ready and reaching for an arrow before he’s gone from view. The sun is setting; they’ll need to switch to laps once it’s too dark to run through the trees.
Damianos and Nikandros talk quietly behind him while they wait, idle chat he has no concern with. Until he hears Damianos mention Laurent.
Damen is woken by a knock at his door before the sun has even risen, and he is less than pleased when he answers the door. He was prepared for slave or servant, perhaps a guard; instead, he finds an equally disgruntled Nikandros standing with Makedon and a half asleep Laurent.
Makedon grins, and it may be Damen’s imagination, but it looks vaguely twisted in this light. “Get dressed. We’re late.”
Damen has never ridden his stallion bareback, and considering how exhausted Laurent looks, he’s surprised he doesn’t fall off his mare before he’s even properly seated. Yet another thing Laurent handles with grace.
By the time they’re away from the palace and out the city gates, everyone is more awake. Aside from Makedon, who was already wide awake. Damen is convinced his water flask has griva in it.
They all dismount, and Makedon pays the man already waiting there to watch their horses. “You know the drill, son.”
And Laurent starts by stretching his legs, then takes off down the field.
Makedon watches him for a moment, then turns to Nikandros and Damen. “Better find something to do. He’ll be running for a while.”
Laurent ducks a swing at his head, rolling back, then darting aside as the wooden sword comes down hard where he’d just been crouching.
Makedon swings out at him, and Laurent jumps away. When Makedon gets close, Laurent swings his bow at his head, then falls to his back then the sword comes flying at him again.
“How come you have a sword?” Laurent shouts over his shoulder as he runs away. His thighs still tingle from the run, and Makedon has longer strides. He’s at a disadvantage.
“You won’t always have your sword with you in battle. You need to use your surroundings if you want to survive.”
This would have been a good lesson to learn before going to the border.
Prince Damianos and Nikandros aren’t watching anymore. Rather, they’re lying back and staring up at the clouds.
Laurent runs their way, narrowly dodging a hit to his torso.
They look over as Laurent gets closer, reaching for a blunt point arrow and nocking it. Their eyes go wide when they realize he isn’t going to run around them.
They curl themselves up rather than have their midsections trampled, which Laurent was betting on as he leaps over them. He turns midway and shoots the arrow just to the left of Makedon’s head. Makedon stumbles to avoid it, and then Prince Damianos and Nikandros, as they roll to avoid him.
Laurent hits the ground hard, certainly bruising his shoulder, then runs straight at Makedon, who’s now righted himself. He nocks another arrow, forcing his legs faster.
Makedon goes for a thrust. Laurent side steps.
He gets his bow, and subsequently, his arrow, to Makedon’s throat before Makedon can ready his sword once more.
They’re both breathing hard, glaring at one another.
“Yield,” Laurent tells him, voice low. Threatening.
Makedon is huffing his breaths, glaring. Then his expression smooths out, and he smirks.
He drops his sword, hands held at his sides in surrender. Laurent kicks it aside, then lowers his bow with an uncertainty and caution warranted around Makedon. When he’s sure Makedon isn’t going to lunge for it, he puts the arrow back in his quiver.
He hears a low whistle at his side, and looks over to see Prince Damianos and Nikandros sitting up, wide eyed. Prince Damianos had whistled.
Laurent’s face heats, so he walks away before they can see and goes to go find his other arrows.
“Nikandros?” Damen asks later that night, once dinner had ended and everyone had gone back to their rooms, except the two of them. They’re out on the training grounds, staring at the stars rather than sparring like they’d come out here to do.
“I’m in love.”
Nikandros groans, putting his hands over his face.
When the first day of the games arrives, Makedon doesn’t wake him up until the sun has kissed the horizon. A well-earned rest, he’d called it. Isander is still asleep, and Laurent gets dressed quietly. They have a big day ahead and Isander will be expected to make an appearance. After being painted and perfumed with the other slaves, of course.
Laurent looks at the gold around Isander’s neck, his wrists. He hates that color, and it is everywhere he turns. He even wears gold around his own neck, he thinks bitterly. Laurent touches the coin of the necklace, warm from always being against his skin and the Akielon sun baring down on it.
There’s an A etched into its surface, and he’s wondered what it stands for. For so many years he’s wondered at the significance of it. If there was significance at all. His life in Vere is lost in every way. It’s as though Laurent had never lived there, never been born there.
Sometimes he wonders why he keeps it. Why he insists on wearing it.
He’s happy with his life. He loves Makedon. He loves Isander. If someone from Vere were to see this and recognize it, recognize him…?
Would it even matter to him?
There’s a knock on his door, drawing him away from his musings. “Come in.”
Makedon comes in, grinning. He’s in his uniform, sans helmet. “The men are getting ready in the yard. Are you riding in the parade with us?”
Laurent nods and grabs his uniform. He’ll be wearing it while he competes as well. Except his chest plate. Makedon had a silver one fashioned for him. He’d presented it last night. Laurent had hugged him. Thanked him.
“You’ll have two hours after the parade to come back here and get everything you need, then be out on the field for the competitions.”
Laurent nods. He knows all this. He’s know it from day one.
Makedon places his hands on Laurent’s shoulders, and he smiles, dark eyes bright. “You ready?”
Laurent feels an odd sense of pride fill his chest at the look in Makedon’s eyes. He’s this man’s son, through and through. Makedon has put his blood, sweat, and tears into raising Laurent.
And Laurent has his answer.
“Yes,” Laurent says, a thickness to his voice he is unprepared to acknowledge out loud. “I’m ready.”
Makedon claps his shoulders, and they head out.
The parade goes about as anyone would expect, the soldiers go first, with their respective leaders at the helm, then dancers, then a platform on wheels rolled out with slaves playing instruments to complement the high spirits flooding the streets, then more dancers, then the royal family—trailed by their guards. All while people throw flowers from their balconies or shop roofs.
Laurent rides his mare back to the palace rather than walk.
Isander is waiting at the door with his silver chest plate. Laurent unstraps himself quickly, shedding his gold chest plate and gold shin guards. He straps plain silver ones on in their place. He takes the chest plate from Isander’s hands and straps himself in while Isander braids his hair back. He doesn’t need the blond tresses obstructing his vision.
He ties the end off with a blue ribbon, then another. Laurent wraps his blue cloak around his shoulders, and Isander places the house pin in to hold it in place. Isander smiles. “There! All done.”
Laurent smiles and kisses his head. “Wish me luck!”
Isander shouts it after him as he runs back out the room. Isander will be attended by the palace slaves then brought out to Makedon ‘for safe keeping.’
He wants to get to the field quickly, so he has a longer time to study his competition.
And there is a lot of competition, Laurent realizes, as he dismounts his mare. Bleachers have been brought out for viewing, and a stage erected as the dais. The field is packed already.
A stable hand takes his mare, tying a note with his name to her bridle. She tugs and fights, but he manages to get her to follow along after Laurent pets her snout, assures her that she will be safe. And gives her a sugar cube.
Laurent follows after people who seem as though they’re competing.
Laurent turns at his name, searching the crowd. A hand grasps his wrist tugging him to the side. Laurent is pulled just to the edge of the stage holding the royal family, and looks up. Prince Damianos grins down at him, releasing Laurent’s wrist. He is still very tall.
“I thought I recognized that hair,” Prince Damianos jokes.
Laurent pulls his braid over his shoulder, his cheeks going pink. “There aren’t that many blonds in Akielos. Fewer who’s skin stays light in the sun.”
Prince Damianos reaches out to touch Laurent’s braid, then stops himself, dropping his hand. His smiles grows awkward at the corners. “You’ve trained hard for this. I’ll be rooting for you.”
Laurent blinks. “Really? I though Papa was the only one hoping I win.”
Prince Damianos laughs, disbelieving. “Surely you have suitors cheering for you as well?”
That creases his brows. “I don’t have suitors,” he tells him. “I’m Veretian. Nobody wants anything to do with me.”
Prince Damianos’ smile drops at that, all happiness slipping off his face. It…confuses Laurent. He thought everyone knew this. No one is exactly discreet with their distaste for him when he’s around or the topic of discussion.
“But—” He stops and blinks, and starts again. “Then do you not have a favor?”
“Favor?” He’s never heard of receiving a favor before a fight. “What is that?”
Prince Damianos smiles again, clearly bemused. “A way to wish someone luck before a fight. To show you want them to win.” He chuckles, rubbing the back of his neck. “I expected you to have several.”
Laurent shakes his head. “Makedon gifted me this chest plate, but that was last night. And he is not a suitor.” His nose wrinkles at the thought.
“Then,” Prince Damianos hesitates. “Would you care for me to give you one?”
And his cheeks are pink again. He turns his eyes aside. Daringly, and surprisingly, he looks up through his lashes and says, “Well, you did say you’d be rooting for me. It only seems fitting you give me a favor.”
Prince Damianos grins, encouraged, dimple flashing, then unties the red band around his bicep. He takes Laurent’s arm in his hand, and wraps the band above Laurent’s elbow, tying it off. Laurent bends his elbow to check it doesn’t hinder his movements.
He smiles. He turns his eyes up to Prince Damianos. “Thank you, for this. It isn’t often someone beside Papa or Isander shows me any kindness.” He takes his braid in hand and looses one of the ties there. “Here.” He takes Prince Damianos’ arm and ties the ribbon where his red band had once been.
Prince Damianos stares at his arm for a long moment, grin gone, and Laurent starts to wonder if the notion was not one to reciprocate. Then the prince looks down at him, and smiles. It’s small, but sincere. The look in his eyes is soft.
Laurent’s cheeks could not get any redder, even from a sunburn. “Good luck, Prince Damianos.”
He turns to leave, but Prince Damianos catches his hand. He holds Laurent’s eyes. “Please, call me Damen.”
Laurent’s breath catches at the seriousness of his request. He gives a hesitant nod. “Damen.”
He’s given another grin. Prince Damianos has a beautiful, infectious smile. “Good luck.”
Laurent is sure his crush will never go away now.
Damen sits at the dais, as is expected of him. He is only allowed one event, aside from the okton. He’s chosen wrestling; it is the last event of the day, and the okton will be the main event tomorrow.
Theomedes steps onto the dais, and Damen and Kastor both rise. The crowd slowly grows quiet as they realize their king has joined them.
Theomedes holds their attention for a moment, standing front and center of the stage, then raises his arms in the air, and everyone erupts into cheers. The games have begun.
Damen grins as he takes his seat again. Kastor looks across their father to him. He squints at Damen. “What happened to your arm band?”
Theomedes looks over now, at where Damen had been wearing a red arm band and now has a blue ribbon.
“I gave it as a favor.” He shrugs. He hopes to come off nonchalant, but he’s never been a very good actor.
“And the ribbon?” Theomedes asks. Kastor is still squinting, his suspicion growing by the second.
“It was given to me as a favor in return.”
Theomedes smirks, turning his eyes back forward. “You’ve never given favors before.”
Kastor hums, but leans back in his chair, turning his attention to the wine on hand as his interest wanes.
“I’ve never had someone worth giving one to.”
Theomedes nods approvingly. “Your mother was a warrior too,” he shares, and this is not the first Damen has heard that, but it is the first time his father has spoken of his mother with that level of affection. It catches Kastor’s attention too, pulling his lips from his glass and glancing at Damen. Late Queen Egeria is not often brought up, and especially not by the king.
Damen’s chest feels tight, and he isn’t sure if he’s ready to ask more. He turns his eyes forward instead, just as they call out the competitors for spear throwing.
Laurent isn’t among the names called, though Makedon’s name is called a few times. Some of his soldiers are competing. Damen isn’t surprised Laurent isn’t competing. Damen hadn’t seen him touch a spear in the week that he observed his training.
A noble’s son, Pallas, wins. A tie is placed around his bicep to signify his victory.
Archery is next, and Laurent’s name is called this time, under Makedon’s banner. A few others under Makedon’s banner join as well. Laurent is considered the underdog; he can already tell. The other competitors are sending sly looks Laurent’s way. Laurent ignores them, keeping steadfast in his focus.
Unlike the other archers with their quivers over their shoulder, Laurent straps his to his hip and thigh.
Kastor leans forward in his seat. “Wait a moment,” he mutters. Then he points. “That’s your band! On the Veretian!” he hisses, whipping a glare at Damen.
Damen isn’t worried about Kastor’s reaction, but his father’s. Theomedes takes a closer look at Laurent’s blond head in the lineup, and sees the obvious red against all his silver and blue. He hums, casting his eyes to Damen. “So, not a woman then?”
Damen tries to keep from sucking in his lips, pursing them instead, and shakes his head.
Theomedes sighs, but says no more. At least he doesn’t look angry or disappointed, but Damen doesn’t feel indifference is much better.
Damen turns his eyes back forward as the competition begins. Laurent is quick and efficient with his bow, his arrows flying true. They narrow down competitors, until all that is left is Laurent, standing victorious.
Damen cannot stand up and cheer; he has already given his band away and cannot be too obvious in showing favorites, but he claps, feeling excitement course through him. A band is tied around his arm, above Damen’s, and Laurent grins.
Theomedes motions to have the winner’s targets brought forward to see the accuracy of Laurent’s shots. His eyebrows raise at every mark being bullseye. “Makedon isn’t just full of pride and griva then. The boy does have talent.”
Damen grins. “Like you wouldn’t believe.” He watches Laurent step to the sideline, and Makedon engulf him in a hug. The little slave is there as well, his head bowed but smiling. Laurent pulls him into the hug too.
Laurent competes again in the sword fighting. People are more wary of him now, but Laurent is small—or smaller than most Akielons. Little do they know; it is to his advantage.
Laurent isn’t the first called up to fight, or the second, but he is the third, going against the king of the hill from the first fight. He wins, easily. Embarrassingly easily. He knocked the sword right out of his competitor’s hand on the first swing.
Laurent holds the hill for several more fights. Everyone is on the edge of their seats as the next competitor comes out. Laurent has been fighting for nearing an hour now, and his stamina has to be running low.
He doesn’t show it. And while this fight lasts him a little longer, he still wins.
“If he does not win this fight,” his father says after. “He will get an honorable mention for holding the hill so long.”
But Laurent wins this fight too, and helps the girl up afterwards. She smiles, and they talk in the ring for a moment. It is not uncommon for a congratulations at the end of a good fight. And Laurent has more than earned it.
Theomedes stands to applaud when Laurent walks up to the dais for his second tie. Damen can see his legs shaking, and is glad the sun is high. Laurent needs the break. Damen hops off the dais the moment his father allows and joins Laurent’s side.
“Laurent,” he laughs. “That was amazing!”
Laurent’s cheeks are pink when he laughs with him, though it is likely more from exertion than Damen himself, he will concede. “Thank you.” He pulls his braid over his shoulder, twisting the end between his fingers.
The crowd is clearing out around them. There’s an hour long intermission for food. His gaze doesn’t leave Laurent’s. “Are you competing in anything else?”
“The horse races.”
Damen’s mind turns to the excitable dapple grey Laurent has. He’s seen their companionship, their confidence in one another, their bond. He hasn’t see them race, but he’s seen them shoot through trees bareback with neither getting clipped. They are an impressive duo. “What do you think your chances are?” he asks, to appear partially impartial.
Laurent shrugs, running his lip briefly between his teeth. “I’m confident.”
Damen has to drag his eyes away from Laurent’s lips. He leans in closer, feels he cannot help himself, and smiles. “You should be.”
They turn when Makedon calls him over, the slave by his side.
Laurent’s eyes turn back up to him for a moment. “Thank you.” He blushes again, then says, “Damen.”
He runs off after that, but Damen can still feel the tingle down his spine. He loves how his name sounds from Laurent’s lips. His full, pink lips.
Nikandros steps to his side, his arms folded. They both watch as Laurent walks away with Makedon and the slave. Eventually they get lost in the crowd, but he and Nikandros remain unmoved. Nikandros spares him a glance, expression as flat as usual. “You’re drooling.”
Damen punches his arm.
Makedon stands by Laurent as he mounts his mare. She shakes out her mane. “Nervous?”
Laurent grins. “Excited.”
“Are you sure you don’t want a crop?”
Makedon sighs, but there’s a smile to his lips, like he expects nothing less from Laurent. He’ll only use a whip stick for training, and barely at that. Makedon pats the mare’s hip. “Good luck to you both.”
Laurent lines his mare up with the other horses. They are broken up into two groups, and the two finalists will race. There are maybe twenty racers, and every one of them is giving Laurent hostile looks. Laurent keeps his gaze forward. They’ve trained hard for this. He has as much a right to be here as any of them.
His mare snorts, stomping her hoof. He pets her neck. They only have to do two laps around the course. It doesn’t escape Laurent’s notice that he was put on the outside track, but he doesn’t want to assume it was on purpose.
It won’t stop them.
When the flag goes down, they all take off.
His mare flies down the track, quick to overcome two of the riders, working her way to the inner track. Laurent’s cloak flaps behind him. She passes another, then another.
A rider darts forward to keep them from progressing over. She glares at Laurent.
As they go around the bend, he pulls his mare to fall back, then goes around the rider. He suppresses sending a smirk her way.
He’s by the inner track, squeezed between two other riders, all of them neck and neck.
They smack their horses with crops, trying to gain speed.
Laurent kicks his heels in, and his mare sprints forward, working harder. “That’s it, girl.”
There are two more riders in front of him, kicking up dirt. They stay side by side, and Laurent cannot get between them. He guides his mare to head for their sides as they go around the bend and complete their first lap.
She huffs, working hard. She wants to win as much as he does, Laurent thinks with a touch of humor.
One of the rider’s horses starts to lag by the next bend. He wasn’t pacing his horse and its stamina has run out. Laurent moves in and takes their place by the other rider. She’s had the inner track since the beginning.
They come around the bend, and now they both snap their horses to their max speed.
His mare huffs again, forcing herself faster, faster, faster still. The last time she hit this speed, they’d been running from a couple of lionesses.
They get ahead of the other rider, by barely a hair.
Then a gasp goes through the crowd, and horror strikes his heart as his mare makes and odd, sudden grunt. The world around him seems to slow.
His mare tripped.
Everything happens very fast after that.
Her feet catch under her. She hits the ground, taking Laurent with her, and slides over the track.
They stay down and don’t move as the other racers run passed, either going around or leaping over them.
Laurent’s right leg feels like fire, trapped under his mare. She’s fallen on him once before, but it hadn’t hurt then.
When the last racer passes, he sits up as best he can. He pets his mare’s neck. “Hey, girl,” he says, his voice gentle. She nickers at him, a low rumble. He pats her shoulder, both of them quivering from the fall. “Can you get up?”
She does, putting a lot of weight on his foot as she goes. He can’t stop from crying out at the pressure. Her side is scraped up, but she gets to her feet, and she isn’t limping. Relief floods his system; Laurent would rather have broken his own leg if it meant hers were okay.
She sticks her nose at his cheek and nickers again. He laughs, petting her face. “I’ll be okay, girl.”
She lowers herself to the ground in front of him, putting her head to his chest.
He pets her neck and looks over the crowd. There’s a quiet murmur, but mostly everyone seems shocked. He turns to the dais and sees Damianos standing at the edge, his hands in fists. Laurent can’t see his expression, but he’d dare to guess that Damianos is concerned.
They’re all waiting to see what he’ll do next.
Laurent gets his good leg under himself and sits sidesaddle. His mare gets back to her feet and completes the track. They walked it, and a medic was waiting for them at the finish line.
Damianos hops off the dais then, and helps Laurent off his mare. A stable hand tries to guide her away, but she rears up and roars at him, her ears pressed flat to her head. “Shh! Shh!” Laurent takes her reins in his hands and pulls her towards him. He pets her snout, nostrils flaring with huffing breaths, and coos soft sound to her. “Someone get Isander,” he instructs, not breaking contact with his mare.
Damianos tells someone to fetch ‘the slave’ while Laurent keeps his girl from bucking up and hurting anyone.
When Isander arrives, he takes her reins and clicks his tongue at her a few times, drawing her attention to him. He smiles, placing his hand on her snout. “Come on, girl. Laurent will be okay,” he mutters to her, walking her through the parting crowd. His voice is quiet enough to be ignored, and everyone’s attention is shifting from him and the horse back to Laurent.
The medic comes forward. “We need you off your leg so I can look at it.”
Damianos puts his arm around Laurent before Laurent can say otherwise, and helps him limp to the medic’s tent. Makedon is waiting for him there. He’s frowning at Damianos.
“Papa,” Laurent starts to defend, but he’s cut off.
“I hope you disqualified that rider.”
“What?” Laurent asks, turning his eyes up to Damianos.
Damianos looks angry as he says, “Yes, and she won’t be allowed to participate in the games again.”
He takes Laurent into the tent. “What happened?”
Makedon and Damianos both help him to sit on one of the mats laid out on the floor, even though he doesn’t need it. “The lead rider lashed out and hit your horse with her crop. It startled your horse, and she tripped,” Makedon tells him.
“Someone could have died if anyone had tripped over you,” Damianos says, glaring at the ground. “Or you could have been trampled.” He’s getting himself worked up. “Or—"
The medic comes to his side, kneeling, and looks at his leg.
Laurent reaches up and takes Damianos’ hand, halting his ‘what if’s. “I’m the only one who got hurt; even my mare will be okay. Don’t stress yourself over what could have happened.”
Damianos kneels by his side and squeezes his hand.
Makedon clears his throat, and Laurent looks up. “I’m going to see how the slave is handling your horse.”
Laurent nods. “Thanks, Papa.”
Makedon gives him a tight lipped smile, the one he reserves for when he’s stressed. He pulls his flash out as he exits.
Damianos sits properly after Makedon leaves, holding Laurent’s hand tighter.
“It isn’t broken, but I want you to stay off it for a few weeks.” He proceeds to smear a salve for the scraps, then wrap Laurent’s knee and shin in linen and pin the cloth in place. He bows to Damianos, then leaves the tent.
Laurent and Damianos are left alone, and Laurent is very aware of Damianos still holding his hand, now wrapped in both his bigger ones. They’re a lot warmer than Laurent’s.
He can feels his cheeks heating, and he turns so his blush cannot be seen.
“I can’t believe someone would do this. They weren’t even discreet. They did it in front of all of Ios,” Damianos whispers. Laurent peeks back up, but Damianos’ eyes are lost to the thoughts in his mind.
Laurent shrugs, his voice falling flat. “I almost expected something like this at some point.”
Damianos looks at him then, and his face is in anguish. “You shouldn’t be living in that sort of fear, Laurent.”
His brows furrow. “I’m not living in fear, Damianos,” he says. “I can take care of myself. Papa made sure of that. But I can’t force them to accept me.”
Damianos’ eyes search Laurent’s for a moment, and whatever he finds, he turns back forward. His hands hold Laurent’s tighter. He seems to be done speaking of it, for now.
“You should remember how they’ve treated me my whole life when Prince Auguste comes to visit,” Laurent warns, staring at their hands. “I’m Akielon and they hate me. He is the epitome of what it is to be Veretian.”
Damianos’ face grows grave, and he nods. He looks down at their hands too, and brushes his thumb across Laurent’s knuckles.
Fluff!! (Also, the chapter feels a little faster paced than I'd have liked, but we're here now, sooo...Read it slowly? Please?)
It’d only been letters at first. Just general updates on each other’s lives. They’d been silly, but also made Laurent’s heart flutter every time the runner was spotted coming towards Karthas. Damen had told him about meeting Prince Auguste again. About the feasts, and the hunts, and the sparring. Damen said the prince was not at all what he anticipated; that he was a lot friendlier when they weren’t meeting across a battlefield. Shocking.
Soon enough, though, the letters came with little trinkets. Usually jewelry. A small gold hoop for his ear, a gold pinkie ring with a ruby set at the center, an anklet to match. Laurent wears the hoop in his cartilage, after Isander had pierced it—with the help of another slave who was more experienced with piercings. All the gold matches his necklace.
Then books, with little personal note cards tucked between the pages. They came in different languages, all of them romances. It’d made Laurent blush, and what was written on the cards more so.
Then the visits started. Damen would come to stay with them for a week or so, then head to see Nikandros for a short time; talking with the kyros about how border patrols have been since the visit with the Veretian prince. And when he came back, he’d stay for another week; always between Laurent’s season at the border; his duty being cut back one season to spend more of his time with the prince.
Then Nikandros was no longer his excuse, and he’d stay for a few weeks at a time in Karthas.
Makedon didn’t let that stop Laurent’s training, which encouraged Damen to participate. Either he’d spar with Laurent—and take it seriously, after Laurent put him on his back in front of a circle of seasoned soldiers and green recruits alike—or set up the targets for Laurent to aim at. He’d run laps by his side, trying to hold a ‘very serious’ conversation while doing so; it resulted in much laughter and then wheezing by the end of their run. Some days he’d race their horses together.
They’d share kisses on the ramparts, have picnics out in the field, and Damen would sneak into his room during the night so they could share a bed. They’d use their mornings to wear the other one out through exercise, then spend their afternoons riding off to wear each other in another way, where Makedon and Isander would not happen upon them.
But all good things must come to an end, and after their two yearlong affair, Damen wasn’t allowed to visit anymore. He had to focus on his princely duties in the capital rather than gallivanting off, per his father’s orders.
Laurent thought that was the end of it, heartbreaking and final. He was thoroughly surprised when a runner showed up nearly a month after that, formally inviting Laurent to move into the palace to continue his courtship with Prince Damianos, with the king’s seal.
Makedon had been straight faced as he read the letter, and still so when he sat it down.
Laurent sits anxiously on his bed, Isander nervously fiddling with Laurent’s hair. “Well?”
He turns his chair and faces Laurent, putting his hands on his knees. “Are you asking to go?”
“I’m asking what you think.”
Makedon wipes his hand down his face, tugging at his beard. He gives a heavy sigh. “I think you’re eighteen now, and well within your rights to do as you please with your life.” He leans back in his seat. “So, let me ask you: what do you think?”
Laurent feels small again, and unsure of his actions, like the first time Makedon gave him the reins to his stallion. The control is in his hands, Makedon is trusting him with it, but Laurent still hesitates. “…I miss Damen.”
Makedon raises a brow, folding his arms. He waits for Laurent to continue.
“I love him,” he says, a little more surety to his voice.
Laurent feels a mix of love and loss when his answer comes to him. “I want to go.”
Makedon smiles, all tender care and softhearted emotion. “And I want you to be happy.” He stands up with a grunt. “Ah, come ‘ere, boy.” He holds his arms out and Laurent rises to hug him. One of his hands cups the back of Laurent’s head, holding him close.
Laurent’s arms are tight around Makedon’s waist. “I’m going to miss you, Papa,” he whispers.
Makedon chuckles. “You’ll see me every summer, boy.”
“It won’t be often enough.”
Isander withdraws from the room, saying softly, “I’ll inform the runner of your choice, Master,” then leaves to give them privacy.
Packing is harder than he expects. Every item they remove from his room feels like losing a piece of himself. Makedon helps, and he makes jokes, talks about the memories attached to some of the it.
And it makes Laurent’s heart ache.
He only needs half a wagon for all his belongings, so Isander gets to ride in the shade when they leave. Twelve of Damen’s personal guard were sent to escort him to the palace. Makedon was going to join him as well and stay for a few days while Laurent settled in, but he’d been called away to the border. The hug Laurent gave him hadn’t lasted long enough.
When he enters the gates to the palace, he sees a rider rushing to meet them. Then laughs when he realizes it’s Damen.
Laurent nudges his mare forward.
They meet halfway, dismounting before their horses have quite stopped, and collide in a clumsy hug. Damen squeezes him, and he plants a kiss to Laurent’s head. “I trust your trip went well?” he asks into Laurent’s hair.
Laurent smiles into Damen’s chest, his arms just as tight around Damen. “It was fine. You have good men.”
“I would hope so,” he chuckles. Then he sighs, and his hold changes to something more intimate. “I wasn’t sure that you would agree to come.”
Laurent tilts his face up and kisses Damen's neck, his tongue grazing the skin there, and he feels Damen’s fingers curl into his chiton; either aching to pull him closer or rip the fabric from his body—both are plausible, and welcome. “I want to be here.” He kisses him again, a little higher, then again on his jawline. “With you.”
Damen claims his lips, lifting a hand to tangle in Laurent’s hair. His mouth is barely a breath away as he whispers, “We have to see my father. Why do you insist on teasing me?”
Laurent shifts a leg forward, and Damen takes a sharp breath. Laurent smirks. “Sweetheart, it’s the game I like.”
Damen takes Laurent's bottom lip between his teeth and nips, then kisses the smarting. “We cannot stall forever.”
“Who’s stalling?” Laurent goes in for one last kiss.
Laurent is given a set of rooms in Damen’s apartments, across from Damen’s own rooms. He doesn’t spend many nights in there, however. Not with the comforts and benefits that come with sleeping in the prince’s bed.
Their courting in Ios isn’t quite the same as it was in Sicyon; Damen has duties to attend and most days Laurent will be left to wander the palace, to learn his new home and the people who inhabit it. Laurent cannot join Damen as Damen had joined Laurent. They may be courting, but that does not make Laurent privy to council meetings and courtly rulings.
Wandering the palace leaves him with mixed feelings. When he would visit, no one had truly minded him because he would be returning to the border soon after. Now, he has a potentially permanent residency. Most hold their noses up because of his Veretian heritage. They don’t trust him. In their eyes, he is nothing more than a snake, hiding in the grass, waiting for the opportune moment to strike.
So he learns who hails from where, and what importance they serve to the crown that has earned them a place in palace politics. And once he’s done that, he sets about starting conversation with those not wholly adverse to him or who are looking to curry favor with the prince.
He usually sets about his plans during dinner, when everyone is deep in their cups and Damen is at his side. It would be poor etiquette to turn away the prince’s lover, especially in his company.
It has worked exceedingly well. Though tonight, Damen has had the same number of drinks as Laurent, but is noticeably tipsier. Once you’ve built up a tolerance to griva, wine and brandy don’t hold the same effects they once had. Regardless, Laurent’s cheeks are still flushed, and Damen is fond of pointing that out.
“So pretty,” he’d mumbled against Laurent’s cheek when he pulled Laurent around a column for a single moment of privacy.
Damen is still capable of holding conversation, mostly. His eyes keep coming back to Laurent, his arm heavy over his shoulders. Laurent shares a few words with Heston, and the conversation is easy and flowing between them. Both were raised in Sicyon and are intimately familiar with the land.
He’d been the first person to warm up to Laurent in the court. That said, Laurent doesn’t fight it when Damen eventually tries to pull him away. He gives a few mildly slurred words of apology for stealing Laurent from him, and Heston smiles and waves them off, as though he finds their youth amusing.
King Theomedes looks an odd mix of disgruntled and indulgent as he watches them leave, and Laurent is careful not to catch his gaze.
Many more weeks follow in a similar manner. Damen grows busier and busier, and Laurent dedicates his time to winning over the court and nobility. In his spare time, he goes with Isander out to the stables and they take his mare for a walk along the shore; he may perhaps bring a book or two with him for them to read, if the weather permits.
Some days, if the sun isn’t too harsh on Laurent’s skin, they’ll strip bare, lay out on their chitons, and spend hours watching the water and the birds.
“How have you been faring, Isander?” he asks. His voice is slightly muffled with his head buried in his arms, his back to the sky.
Isander is much the same, muffled and all. “I have been well. The palace slaves are very kind. The ones in Prince Damianos’ household took me in and showed me all the secret passage ways. They were excited to meet me, apparently.”
Laurent hums, because Damen must have talked about Isander to them at some point, then raises his head. “Are you happy, Isander?”
Isander turns his face to Laurent, and rather than flashing a bright smile, he gives a small one. Private between them. “I’m happy.”
Laurent's shoulders lose their tension, and he can’t help the smile that comes to his own face. “Would being free not make you happier?”
He watches Isander’s smile fall, his eyes go a little wide, then Isander rolls onto his back, staring at the sky. “I think it would be a big change. I…” His brows furrow, and he folds his hands over his chest. “I don’t know what I would do.”
Laurent’s heart shutters and shatters like pressured glass at what next falls from his lips.
“This is all I know.”
“Damianos,” Laurent sighs, walking his fingers up Damen’s dark chest. The sun has not quite set, and the revelries of dinner can still be heard from the open balcony.
Damen catches his hand and presses a kiss to his knuckles, his palm, his wrist. “Yes, my love?”
Laurent’s cheeks go pink, and Damen smiles. “I had a thought. One that has plagued me for a terribly long time.”
Damen frowns now, and turns so his body lines along Laurent’s. For the first time in what feels like too long, he has Damen’s full attention. Most nights, after dinner and socializing have concluded, Damen is too tired to do much more than go to bed with Laurent wrapped in his arms. He keeps his grasp on Laurent’s hand, and with his other, he brushes a stray hair behind Laurent’s ear, then trails his fingers down Laurent’s still warm cheek. “What troubles you?”
He bites his lip, and wonders if he should have opened his mouth at all.
“You can tell me,” Damen insists, his voice a whisper between them. His dark eyes hold nothing but sincerity and concern.
Laurent closes his eyes, because he cannot continue looking into Damen’s. Else he would spill all his thoughts before long. His head tilts down, enough that he tucks under Damen’s chin. He’s pulled closer. “I don’t know that I can.”
Laurent waits with bated breath, regret coursing through his veins. “Do you not trust me?”
He should have said nothing at all. “It’s not that,” he says, a little too quickly. Or perhaps not quickly enough. “I just…worry.”
Warm fingers card through his hair, plush lips kiss his head. “Whatever worries you, know that I only wish to alleviate it.”
Laurent moves closer still, hiding himself completely in Damen’s arms, his face flush to the skin of his neck. “It…” Laurent's breath skitters across Damen’s skin, bringing bumps to the flesh. He swallows. “It is Isander.”
There. He said it.
He can hear confusion as Damen asks, “The slave?”
Laurent manages a nod.
“The slave worries you.”
“No.” Laurent corrects, “I worry for him.”
Another kiss to his head. Words whispered into his hair. “What worries you?”
“He is alone here.” Damen’s fingers trail down the knots of his spine, then back up again. “When we were in Karthas, we spent all our time together. We’ve been inseparable since we were eight. Now…” Laurent trails off.
“Now he is alone,” Damen repeats. His fingers make the trail again, then he asks, “What do you wish be done?”
Laurent leans back to peer up at Damen’s face, open and sincere. Always so sincere. It brings color to Laurent’s cheeks once more. “I was thinking he could learn a trade. Something in the stables? He’s very good with animals.”
Laurent wonders, for a brief moment, if he’s reached too far and overstepped his bounds. But Damen gives him a soft smile, then kisses his forehead. “Of course. I will speak with the horse master about the slave shadowing him for a few hours of the day.”
Laurent grins. “You are perfect.” He kisses Damen, rolling them so he’s straddled over Damen’s hips.
The following morning, Laurent expects to wake up alone, as he usually does. Instead, he feels Damen kissing up his spine, straddling the back of Laurent’s thighs. His erection is half hard between Laurent’s buttocks.
“Have I mentioned,” Damen mumbles along his skin, lips trailing up to his neck. “How much I adore your freckles?” He brushes Laurent’s hair aside and laves wet kisses to the skin of his shoulder.
Laurent smiles into his pillow, pleasantly trapped under Damen’s weight and warmth. “Yes, but I could stand to hear it a few more times.” His voice is thick with sleep.
Damen chuckles. He lays himself more firmly against Laurent, his dick insistent now. “You are gorgeous.”
Laurent raises his hips, spreads his knees. “Do you not have to see your father?”
“Not today,” he assures. Then he’s reaching over and grabbing the oil and pressing inside and—
Laurent takes a stuttering breath, tilting his head so Damen can keep mouthing at his neck.
“I thought it was far overdue that we had some time together,” he continues, lips coming to his ear. “I’m yours.”
The irony of his words are not lost on Laurent, pinned and penetrated by him. If he is Laurent’s, then Laurent is just as much his. Damen moves, slow and deep, hips rolling like the waves outside; gentle and unrelenting. He laces his fingers with Laurent’s. Soft, short breaths in his ear.
“Damianos,” he sighs.
His hands tighten around Laurent’s, hips snap a little harder. Laurent smirks.
“Say it again,” Damen pants on the back of his neck.
“Damianos,” Laurent moans, smiling. “My Prince.”
Damen’s hips are meeting Laurent’s, grinding a moment, then he repeats. He shudders over Laurent.
Damen bites his shoulder, teeth sinking in to muffle the groan he gives.
Laurent lets out a breathless laugh.
Damen moves one hand down to grasp Laurent, stroking in a lazy twist over the head.
He bites his lip, thrusting into Damen’s hand, pushing back on his cock.
Damen pulls out, rolling Laurent onto his back and slipping between his legs once more. He kisses Laurent’s knee as he puts it over his shoulder. Laurent is flushed and panting beneath him. Damen’s gaze is loving, and he cups Laurent’s cheek.
“Kiss me, Damianos.”
He doesn’t need to be told twice. Damen leans down, and despite their position, it’s close-mouthed and chaste. Sweet. When Laurent opens his eyes, Damen is smiling at him. His thumb slides over Laurent’s cheekbone, and Laurent feels his face grow hotter at the attention. “I love you, Laurent.”
Laurent smiles, leaning into his touch. “I love you, Damianos.” Damen kisses him again, and Laurent tangles his fingers into his hair to keep him close. “Finish what you started,” Laurent whispers, pleads, then nips his bottom lip.
Damen reaches down to guide himself back in.
Laurent’s head drops back against the pillows, and Damen latches his lips to his neck.
They fall into each other not long after that.
Damen saw to the slave and Laurent wished him well before they left with their horses. The slave’s eyes had been shining. He and Laurent clearly had a very close bond between them. No wonder he’d been so worried about the slave.
It spoke well of Laurent that he cared so much for those in his household, even if the slave is the only one.
He watches Laurent mount his mare and lead her onward to join Damen on the trail down to the palace gates. “Mine for the day. And do you already have plans?”
Damen grins. “I have a few ideas of how we might spend our time.” The weather has fared well so far, but the day has only begun. Even if it were pouring rain, this is the first time he’s had Laurent by his side other than at meals and to sleep since he arrived, and he was not going to squander it.
His father will not permit him many lax days such as this in the coming months.
Laurent glances at the basket attached to his saddle bag. “Would you care to elaborate?”
Damen smiles. “No.”
Laurent looks at him for a long moment, color coming to his cheeks, then he faces forward. “Where to first, then?”
Damen faces forward as well. “The shore.” Then kicks his stallion into a trot.
They walk side by side, hand in hand, down the length of the water below the cliff face. Their horses are tied off farther up the beach and Damen is carrying the basket in his free hand. The sun hasn’t quiet hit mid-morning yet.
Damen can see clouds on the horizon.
Laurent kicks some water up, looking at his feet. He has his anklet on and his feet bare. Their sandals were left with the horses. Laurent’s hair is braided back, and he has a flush to his cheeks, not from the sun. He is a beauty incomparable.
He is easy to make blush, Damen has found. He’s fond of bringing color to Laurent's freckled cheeks.
They reach a point out of view from anyone in town or looking down from the palace above. This is where Damen stops them. Laurent looks around the area with a raised brow. “Is this our first stop?”
Damen tugs him closer, grinning. Laurent falls easily into his arm, a pale hand on his chest and smiling right back. Damen nods. “It is our first stop.”
“And the basket?”
The waves rush over their feet, their ankles, then away again. “Come, and you’ll see.”
Damen tugs Laurent from the water and out into the sand, closer to the rocks. Laurent follows after him with a laugh on his beautiful lips.
He turns and let’s Laurent crash into him, and in his surprise, plants a kiss to his lips. Damen is smiling too much for it to be a proper kiss, more a press of their mouths, but he can see the color come to Laurent’s cheeks again, and it’s worth it.
Laurent wraps his arms around Damen’s waist, and he starts smiling too much to kiss either. “You’re ridiculous,” he murmurs.
“Can you fault a man for being in love?”
Laurent goes pliant in his arms. “No,” he says, voice soft.
So he sits them down and sets about unpacking their basket. The blanket comes out first, and Laurent helps him stretch it out. Then he sets out all the food for their breakfast. It mostly consists of fruits, some bread with sprinkled cinnamon, some honey for Laurent to dip his food in. He’d only brought water to drink, but he’s noted that, despite Laurent being the farthest thing from a lightweight, he still prefers water to all else.
That, and riding horses while loose with wine is a decidedly poor idea.
Laurent sits curled up by his side, and they feed each other pieces of fruit and bread. They spend a delightful amount of time stretched out on the blanket, sharing kisses. Damen licks the honey from Laurent’s lips and tongue.
The clouds have managed to grow steadily closer, and Damen fears his claim of going out even in the rain will come to pass. He is a man of his word, but it would be an added obstacle he hadn’t accounted for while planning this trip.
“Are we headed back now?” Laurent asks as he ties on his sandals.
Damen straps the basket secure. “No.”
Laurent laughs. He stays sitting on the ground, leaning back on his hands. “Are you going to tell me where we’re headed next?”
That would be spoiling the best part of their trip. “No.”
They stop for lunch on their way, and, against their better judgement, lie out on the blanket again, kissing as they had before.
That’s why they’re drenched now, from the rain that had been making its way here since the start of the day.
As far as Laurent is concerned, it was worth it.
“Damen,” Laurent says through the rain. “It will be well after nightfall before we make it back to the palace. Will you please tell me where we’re going?”
“We’re almost there,” Damen says to him, louder, as the rain falls harder.
Laurent can hardly see anything through all the sheets; that Damen knows where they are, and that they’re near their destination, suggests fine-tuned familiarity.
They begin to crest a hill, and in the distance Laurent can just make out a building. White as every one of them in this part of Akielos, except... “Is that—”
Laurent sucks in a quiet breath. Damen couldn’t possibly have heard it, but he still looks over at Laurent and grins. Laurent’s never been allowed into the Kingsmeet. It’s only allowed to the royal family or opened to high ranked officials during special events, such as a crowning, perhaps a renowned historian with proper papers and reasoning can get in, though that is rare. But he’s read about it; there are many, many books dedicated to the Kingsmeet or events that took place there.
When they reach it, they are greeted by two of the guards out front. They see Damen’s lion pin, and take a knee before him. “Exalted,” they salute.
Damen bids them rise, and Laurent very rarely witnesses Damen acting princely. Usually he’s with his father, who bids everyone his will, or he’s alone with Damen and he’s simply…Damen, not Crown Prince Damianos. It puts Laurent in a minor awe whenever he’s witness to it.
The guards explain the rules to them, and they are allowed entry.
“Nikandros served as a guard here,” Damen says as they walk down a great hall together, trailing dripping water down behind them. Damen had taken his hand to help Laurent off his mare, and Laurent hadn’t been inclined to let go since. “He was gone for two years.”
Laurent vaguely remembers Makedon mentioning that, in passing. “You must have missed him terribly.”
“I did.” He nods.
They reach a doorway, and the inside is lined with statues of the previous kings and queens of Akielos. Damen leads Laurent in there.
Laurent feels a little embarrassed about how excited he is to be in the Kingsmeet, but he can see Damen glancing at him and smiling. Laurent thinks Damen brought him here hoping for this exact reaction.
They come to a stop before a woman, holding a shield in front of her and a sword up in the air, mid-battle cry. “This was my mother.”
They stand quietly beside each other, and Laurent feels Damen’s hand squeeze a little tighter as he stares up at her. Laurent takes a step closer, so their arms touch. “I didn’t know Queen Egeria was a warrior.”
Damen has a small smile on his face, but it’s sad. “That was back when she was still a princess. Her country had a worse rivalry with its neighbor than we’ve ever had with Vere. They were constantly at war.”
Laurent looks at Damen’s face, then back to hers. He says, quietly, “You look a lot her.”
He hears Damen take a breath, then let it back out.
They don’t speak more of his mother, and eventually Damen is able to step away from her statue. They continue walking through the room. There doesn’t seem to be any particular order, other than couples being placed together.
Damen shows him around to some of the other statues, sharing stories for the kings and queens Laurent hasn’t heard of. Damen knows his heritage better than Laurent ever could.
After a while of circling through the room and speaking of the stories of many kings and queens, Laurent smiles, and swoons dramatically into Damen’s arms. “Oh, the songs they’ll one day sing of the great king Damianos.”
Damen smiles, and wraps his arms around him. “They will sing songs of us, love.” Damen peppers kisses all over Laurent's face, and becomes more vigorous when Laurent starts laughing and squirming in his hold. Only when Laurent is breathless and red in the face does Damen stop, and instead sways Laurent from side to side. “And our statues will stand together in here one day.”
Laurent is on a high from the aggressive affection, so he’s still pink cheeked and smiling when he looks up at Damen. “What do you mean?”
Damen’s expression grows serious, and he takes Laurent’s hands. Laurent’s smile slips from his face.
“I mean,” he says, putting a step of space between them, then going to his knees. “I would have you by my side, as my equal, in all things.”
Laurent is sure his hands are shaking as Damen presses a kiss to each, eyes never straying from Laurent’s. His gaze is intense, intent.
“I am yours, Laurent. Will you be mine?”
I apologize this is so late. If you follow me on tumblr then you probably know why, but for those of you who don't, my laptop is a touchscreen with a fracture that has phantom fingers tapping it like crazy. It prevents me from using the laptop, which in turn prevents me from working on the edits. It's up now though, so yay!! Here is our long await conclusion to part 2!!
The wedding takes a very long time to plan, around taking care of the kingdom; and the actual preparations are…overwhelming. Word of the impending nuptials ran out just as Makedon was arriving in Ios. He’d been looking around curiously at all the fanfare in the feast hall when Laurent found him.
“Papa,” he sighs with happiness, then calls, louder, “Papa!”
Makedon turns his way, and a beaming smile comes to his face. When he and Laurent reach each other, Laurent is engulfed in a hug, and squeezed, and swung around like a rag-doll. Makedon smells like horse and sweat, but Laurent hasn’t seen him in nearly a year, hadn’t felt the comforting arms around him in so long, he could not be happier for the embrace.
He’s sat down onto his feet, beaming right back at Makedon. “I take it you didn’t receive the letter?”
Makedon raises a brow, then gives a look about the room. “Does it have something to do with the summer festival being postponed?”
Laurent nods, unable to fight down his smile. “Damen and I are getting married in a few months.”
Watching Makedon’s eyes go wide is a rare treasure, and Laurent hopes to keep the image of it in his mind forever, even if it’s a playful exaggeration. “Really now?” He strokes his hand down his beard, eyes cast off as though thinking something to himself, then nods like a solemn decision has been made. “I should have brought more griva.”
Laurent laughs and hugs him again, face buried into Makedon’s chest. “I missed you, Papa,” he mumbles into his chiton.
Makedon’s hand pets his head. “I missed you too, son.”
Isander taps on his shoulder, eyes on the floor. He’s become very good at acting the part. “Master, I’m so sorry to pull you away, but your betrothed is looking for you.”
Laurent smiles at that. Betrothed. Everyone has been calling Damen his betrothed. He’s being called Damen’s betrothed. There is a fluttering in his chest whenever he hears the term, like his heart might beat free. Laurent turns to Makedon for a moment longer. “Isander can show you to your room, if you want?”
Makedon has caught on to their game, has known for a long time now. He shakes his head. “I need a word with Theomedes before that.”
Laurent notices Isander's shoulders droop the slightest bit, but then he is turning away to lead Laurent to Damen. Laurent gets the impression Isander does not wish to talk about it. They find Damen talking with Theomedes’ steward, a pinched expression upon his face. He’s also standing on a podium as a tailor fits his new chiton and cape, so they complement each other in length and shape. Laurent will likely be next.
When Damen sees him, his face falls into relief. “Laurent will be able to help you with that, I’m sure,” he interrupts the steward.
Taking his que, Laurent walks up, frowning. “Is there a problem?”
“Your Veretian heritage,” he says bluntly, face blank.
Laurent blinks. “How is that a problem? Is there a law I’m unaware of—”
“Nothing of the sort. It is about inviting the Veretian royal family to the wedding and whether or not that was important to you, or wise at all given our histories.” His face is all flat indifference, his quill perched at the ready in his hand and his board of parchment waiting for the next orders.
Laurent’s brows furrow, and he spares a glance to Damen. “I don’t see why it should be a problem,” he says, eyes back on the steward. “Damen made acquaintance with Prince Auguste two years ago, and they will occasionally share letters. It isn’t important to me that they be here, but it would be both diplomatic and polite to send the invitation. I’m sure if Damen hasn’t sent word himself of our engagement, that word has reached Vere all the same.”
The steward nods and writes something long and complicated on his parchment, half shorthand and half notes to himself, from what Laurent can see. His eyes come back up to Laurent. “And if they disinclined to attend?”
“Then that is that.”
The steward hums, looking unimpressed, then leaves. Damen chuckles over his head. “I’ve only ever seen my father handle him so quickly.”
Laurent smiles, coy in a way that has Damen straightening, and steps onto the front of the podium. With the tailor working in the back and Damen instructed not to move lest a needle catch his skin, Laurent feels a little brave. He slides a finger over the hem of Damen’s chiton, from one shoulder to the other, eyes following the action. “How has your morning fared?”
“Well,” Damen replies, head tilted back, as though Laurent held a blade to his throat. “And yours?”
“Lovely,” Laurent answers. His fingers come to the pin at Damen’s collarbone, then to his neck, then his ear. Laurent meets his dark gaze, finger tracing the cool shell, and smiles. He tugs at a ring in Damen’s cartilage.
Damen’s pupils are dilated, and Laurent watches his Adam’s apple bob as he swallows.
He reaches farther and tangles his fingers in Damen’s hair, on his toes and with his chest to Damen’s. Laurent listens as his breathing picks up, and with his free hand, he slides it up Damen’s chest. Laurent can feel the heavy thud of his heart. Everything about Damen speaks to his strength; his body, his heart, his mind. His soul. His wit. His love.
“Are you feeling alright, sweetheart?” Laurent asks, lips curling higher. He’s noticed the tailor has discretely stepped out to give them privacy, but Damen hasn’t.
“Fine,” he says, voice trying for steady.
Laurent slides the hand on his chest lower, so it rests over Damen’s abdomen. “Do you know what I was thinking about this morning?”
Damen takes a breath. “Tell me?” His voice is little more than a pleading whisper.
Laurent leans closer, so Damen is supporting more of his weight. He can feel the muscles in his abdomen shifting to accommodate. “The first night we made love.”
Damen’s eyes are searching, and Laurent can feel another flex.
“You were so gentle,” he whispers against Damen’s lips. “So considerate. You’d waited so long to have me; you had to make sure it was nothing less than perfect.”
Damen’s lids are heavy, his breathing coming short, his cock growing hard.
Laurent lets his hand an inch lower. “I was thinking of what it would be like to have that again.”
Damen’s brows furrow.
Laurent lowers his hand once again, just over where Damen would love to have him most. “Do you think you could last until our wedding night without having me?”
Damen swallows again, then blinks. “This is a game.”
Laurent nips his lip, and Damen leans in for a kiss—second nature to them now. Laurent allows this, and more when Damen doesn’t seem ready to pull away so soon. “Yes,” he agrees, lips still to Damen’s own, fingers still carded through his curly hair.
“And the catch?”
Laurent’s fingers brush over the cock poking into his hip, barely more than a ghost of a touch. “If you win, I’ll do anything you want.”
Damen twitches under his touch, giving himself away, and Laurent smiles. “And if you win?”
Laurent lays his hand flat against him then, and holds firm as Damen jerks into the touch. “You do anything I want.”
Damen gives a worried glance over his shoulder, the prude, only to find the tailor gone and the room deserted. He turns a half serious glare on Laurent, finally lowering his arms from their ridiculous position and taking Laurent’s hips in a punishing grip, pulling him flush. He cracks a little at Laurent's laughing. “You’re a tease, and this is cheating,” he accuses.
“Is it?” Laurent asks, then kisses Damen, tongue parting lips and eyes never drifting from one another. He steps down from the podium, pulling Damen with him. “I don’t recall the bet having started.”
Laurent walks away with a sore jaw and a sated lust. And a bet to win.
For the following months, through preparations and planning and hosting the arriving guests, they play around each other; touches never quite sexual, kisses that last just too long, suggestions for their wedding night whispered between them in the dark of their bedchamber. Their bed has never felt so big until they started to sleep with space between them.
It is maddening; and worse off, Damen is sure that Laurent is winning.
More than once, he’s had to jerk off in the night, with Laurent chuckling and giving explicit instructions beside him, watching. And Damen is helpless to follow them. He is helpless to Laurent.
Not that Laurent hasn’t had the same problem, he’s simply…better when it happens. If Damen dares an instruction, Laurent follows it, and he’s so lewd. It always leads to Damen getting off right alongside him. Which makes Laurent laugh more. It is a wondrous torture. Laurent is beautiful, laughing and sated in the dying candlelight, eyes heavy and twinkling and cheeks flush and warm. Damen so desperately longs to kiss him in those moments.
Laurent almost makes it fun, if Damen weren’t dying to get his hands on him again.
They’ve only got a month left, he reminds himself.
One more month and all those whispered promises can be made real, and no one will be expecting them the following day. They have more than just the night.
“Damianos,” Laurent pants against his ear, warm lips against his skin and voice pitched to a moan, bringing his arms around Damen’s shoulders, his hands traveling down, down, down. Then he’s gone as quickly as he’d come. Damen takes a slow, deep breath, trying to both remember and forget the phantom touch through his chiton. Laurent chuckles beside him. “There’s a letter from Vere for you.”
Laurent sets it on his desk, and Damen recognizes Auguste’s curling cursive.
Laurent kisses his cheek, chaste, then leaves. He’s taken over the final preparations of the wedding so Damen can attend the kingdom; Damen had been running himself ragged trying to see to both. Now, Laurent sees that Damen is only disturbed if he is required. It is deeply appreciated.
Damen cuts the letter open. It’s an apology, that Auguste's mother is sick, and he cannot leave her right now. A congratulation on the marriage. A gift is being sent with an envoy. That he would hear from him again soon.
'Soon' could be anywhere from weeks to months, but that is the life of a royal. Sharing the load of his duties with Laurent would give him at least a little more time for his correspondence.
Over the years that their wedding was being planned, Laurent was slowly allowed to be part of more conversations and decision making where the kingdom was concerned. Little was to be said against it, even if the faces of several Kyroi left Damen feeling uneasy of their positions upon his succession.
Laurent gave well-thought and insightful decisions, and was willing to debate controversial points. He could talk circles around most the people at the table. The exception would be Makedon himself, who tended to side with Laurent anyway.
Damen found it amusing to watch. Sitting straight backed and serious, Laurent looked born to be a king in those moments.
Damen leans back in his chair, setting the letter down. It seems the queen is sick more often than not; as she has been for many years now. He understands Auguste not wishing to part from her, and writes a return letter thanking him and wishing them both well.
“And what are the plans for an heir?” Makedon asks, taking a sip of griva.
They’re out in his and Damen’s private gardens, sharing a drink. They’ve taken to doing this whenever Makedon visits, to catch up and spend some time alone together. Letters are nice, but they never compare to the real thing. The crickets and cicadas sing their night songs, the garden lit with candles and fireflies and moonlight.
Laurent takes a sip from his own cup. The third. Straight griva has never been a friend to his intelligence. “Kastor will be having the heir, since Damen and I will not.” Laurent snorts, then throws his head back with a sharp laugh. “Obviously.”
Makedon casts him an amused glance. “You’re getting light on me, boy,” he admonishes, in his way. “So, Damianos will not be taking a mistress then?”
Laurent cannot seem to keep his face from reacting. He scowls, all merriment now gone. “No. Nor bed slaves.”
Makedon chuckles into his cup. “I should have figured you for the possessive type.”
Laurent doesn’t argue the point, but he does toss back the rest of his glass. Makedon tops him off when Laurent thrusts his cup into the space between them. “Have you seen Halvik recently?”
This time it is Makedon who throws his head back in a laugh. “She comes looking for me every change of seasons. Stolen in the night, blindfolded on horseback. She knows how to keep a man coming back to her tent.”
Laurent laughs, and knocks back his fourth cup, faster than he should have. He hadn’t eaten enough at dinner to be drinking this heavily. His hand wavers a little as Makedon tops him off again. He frowns down at his drink, as though it had insulted his mother. “I may be growing light,” he concedes in a mumble.
“Can you stand?” Makedon asks, then takes a sip. He’s smiling, watching Laurent with clear amusement.
He knows Laurent cannot.
Laurent pouts his lip and deflects, “I don’t need to. Damianos would happily carry me back to our bed.”
“We are alone, son. Who will fetch your prince?”
Laurent lies back in the grass and tries to see behind himself, if there are any guards nearby. There aren’t. Interesting. Laurent slumps in the grass, his energy draining. “Either they have a great deal of faith in our skills, or Damianos will be counting heads after we get attacked.”
Laurent blinks, ponderously. The stars are beautiful out here. He should bring Damen here one night; they can dine under the stars. And more, Laurent thinks, a pleasant heat pooling.
Damen hefts Laurent into his arms, bidding Makedon a good night. The guards close the door to their rooms. The door slam shut, and Damen would tell them to be more careful not to wake Laurent, but he is sleeping a drink and dead to the world. He wants to say he’s surprised Makedon carried Laurent halfway across the palace like this, and in his own inebriated state at that, but he isn’t.
Laurent is the type of person to love with all his heart or not at all, and he creates close bonds with those few people he lets in. Damen has never known a truer man.
Laurent mumbles something incoherent as Damen lays him in their bed, then sets about removing his sandals and chiton.
Damen is almost done with the ties on the first one when Laurent jerks upright, staring at him wide-eyed. Damen nearly jumps out of his skin.
“Damianos,” Laurent whispers.
Then he visibly relaxes again, flopping back onto the pillows. When Damen doesn’t immediately return to removing his sandals, Laurent wiggles his toes.
Damen takes his calf in hand and kisses Laurent’s ankle. Laurent makes a soft sound up the bed, and Damen smiles. He removes the sandal, and then the other. When Damen moves to take the pins out of Laurent’s clothes, Laurent catches his wrist.
“Damianos,” he says again. His eyes are closed, and his voice is steadier than it has any right to be. Laurent smiles, then he starts to laugh. His blue eyes blink open, sparkling and happy. “I am very drunk right now.”
His breath reeks of griva. Damen kisses him anyway, grinning. “Yes, you are.”
Laurent’s hand comes to cup his face. Laurent’s cheeks are pink. “You are very attractive.” He pulls Damen down for another, sloppier kiss. “Undress and join me,” he commands, releasing Damen.
Damen chuckles. “Yes, my Prince.”
While Damen is putting away pins and tossing aside chitons, Laurent works himself under the sheets. He is a tangled mess when Damen crawls in beside him, wrapped completely within the sheet and determined not to share.
Damen pulls Laurent, trapped in his cocoon, into his arms. He curls around him, fitted to his every curve. Laurent is already asleep again.
Damen has not held Laurent like this since their bet began. He sighs, then kisses Laurent's beautiful, blond head.
The day of the wedding is far more hectic than the years leading up to it. The kitchens are working overtime, the people of Ios are holding a celebration in the streets and waiting to greet the newly married couple, all the guests are either chatting or being bustled about.
Damen is getting his clothing looked over one last time, and Laurent is picking at his braid. Laurent has already been looked over, with both cloaks. “Nervous?” Damen asks.
Laurent turns around, orange cloak swishing behind him. He’ll be trading it for a red one to match Damen’s during the ceremony. “No.” He smiles, walking up to Damen, who is now free of the tailor. “I’m too excited. I have a lot of pent up energy,” he says, placing his hands on Damen’s chest.
Damen marvels at the pink that comes to his cheeks. He kisses them both. “Neither of us won the bet.”
A sly look comes to Laurent’s face. “Neither of us lost.”
Damen laughs. He takes Laurent’s face between his hands and presses his nose to Laurent’s, both their eyes gleaming. It has barely begun and already the day is proving an emotional one.“I love you.”
“I love you too,” Laurent sighs against his lips. His eyes fall closed and he kisses Damen, once, then steps back. “Come, we have a wedding to attend.”
Damen takes Laurent’s hand. “They’ll have a time of it, starting without the grooms.”
Laurent chuckles and tugs him along. “No time for games today, Damianos. We are to be married, then to sit through a mighty feast, then to drink ourselves dizzy, and then to fall into bed.”
“Then perhaps we’d be best without drink,” he suggests.
“Try telling that to Papa.”
Nerves thrum through his veins. He knew this was coming, but it hadn’t quite felt real until he’d been told to stand outside the doors to the throne room and wait. Damen is standing on the other side, waiting on him. They’re about to be married.
He hadn’t quite believed it when Damen agreed to lie with solely Laurent, if Laurent agreed to marriage, but Damen had done so, readily. Laurent had admitted to fearing someone would turn Damen’s affections from him, and Damen had admitted to very rarely taking anyone but Laurent to his bed since Laurent had moved into the palace, less and less so as time passed, until Laurent was all who resided there. That he hadn’t wanted anyone but Laurent there. That he still doesn’t.
It had assuaged Laurent’s sole worry. Or what he thought was his sole worry. Now, many small things could go wrong to ruin this day. Or something large and unexpected.
Anxiety claws at Laurent.
Makedon puts his hands on Laurent’s shoulders, steadying him. Their cloaks match, for now. His face is grim, as though he knows where Laurent’s mind had begun to wander. “It isn’t too late to call this off. I can have to horses ready before they’ve even realized we’re gone.”
Laurent takes Makedon’s wrists, chuckling passed the apprehension. “Papa, I don’t want to run away. I’m happy.”
Makedon huffs a sigh, then nods. “Alright, son. I just want to make sure you’re happy.”
“Papa.” Laurent wraps his arms around Makedon’s waist. Makedon clasps his arms around Laurent just as tight. “I’m so happy. I love him so much.”
Isander opens the doors with one of Damen’s slaves—previously a bed slave—Lykaios. A symbol of their joining households.
They separate, and Makedon walks by Laurent’s side up the aisle. Damen is standing at the end, Kastor at his side and Theomedes officiating. Damen is beaming. Each of them are wearing a red cloak for their house color and a lion pin of their station. Kastor is holding Laurent’s red cloak and Damen is holding Laurent’s pin.
The throne room is filled to the brim, guests and guards alike everywhere the eye lands. It is near suffocating, and Laurent has to choke it back.
Makedon stands by Laurent’s side when they reach the end. Damen is still smiling wide, his eyes never straying from Laurent. He gives Damen a small smile in return, then can feel his cheeks warming and his nerves melting away under Damen’s unwavering gaze.
That makes Damen grin wider. So wide, Laurent worries his face will split.
All the royals line the front row—and Vere’s ambassador, Vannes, if he’s remembering correctly. The ranks fall lower and lower from there. And then the common folk, one of which Laurent used to be, wait beyond the gates of the palace. He can hear their cheering from here.
Laurent tries to listen as Theomedes speaks, but he cannot take his focus off of Damen. Laurent at least remembers all his lines and ques. Damen seems the one who needs to be dragged from his staring. Laurent has to keep from laughing whenever Kastor elbows him or Theomedes clears his throat.
A few people in the crowd do not bother with the same sentiment, instead chuckling quietly or covering a laugh with a cough. Damen stares on, unperturbed.
“Welcome to your new household, Prince Laurent.”
Laurent feels almost dizzy as he turns around and lets Makedon take his pin and cloak from his shoulders, and again so Damen can put the new ones on him.
He’d seen his pin before, right after it had been made. Damen wasn’t supposed to, but he’d brought it to Laurent so he could admire it. It was a near match to the one Damen wore, with minor changes to signify their different statuses, if barely. The true difference lies in Laurent’s lacking the ruby gems at the lion's eyes. That he is not of royal linage, but married in.
Damen smiles when it’s done.
They’re married now.
Laurent fists the front of Damen’s chiton and pulls him forward, finally kissing him as he deserves, as they have not in the three months leading up to now.
Damen’s hands slip around his waist and pull Laurent ever closer.
If he cared to try, he might here cheering around them, but he is lost to anything but Damen and his hold and his lips. His hands moving to his hips. Then his thighs.
In a swift sweep of motion, Laurent's feet aren’t touching the floor anymore.
Damen carries him back down the aisle.
Laurent laughs, burying his face into the crook of Damen’s neck.
Laurent gasps, his fingers gripping Damen’s hair. He’s tugging too hard, but Damen doesn’t complain, because he hasn’t heard Laurent’s sweet little sounds in far too long. He curls a finger up and rubs at Laurent's prostate with some insistence, and takes Laurent’s cock down his throat.
His thighs are squeezed around Damen’s head, and trembling. The action keeps Damen's head trapped and Laurent's cock down his throat, but Laurent mewls so pretty for it.
Laurent had been too nervous to put his hands in Damen’s hair the first time he’d done this. He’d been nervous about Damen doing it at all. Damen had thought it was his status Laurent was shying away from; it was inexperience. It had been endearing.
Outside of slaves, rarely will you find someone seventeen and virgin.
Three years since then and Laurent has blossomed, open to his wants and needs, and he isn’t shy in sharing.
“Damen,” he pleads. “More.”
And so Damen slides a second finger in beside the first. Laurent's thighs fall open, and Damen moves to press open mouthed kisses down his shaft, breathing heavy. One more pass of his tongue at the slit, and Damen pulls away completely.—and relishes the whine it brings to Laurent’s lips. He sits back on his haunches, panting.
Laurent’s hair is a mess around his head, and his face and chest are flushed—only partially from the alcohol Makedon kept passing them—as he glares beautiful blue daggers at Damen. His skin has a thin sheen of sweat, and his necklace is caught on his collarbone, its coin winking in the candlelight. He is a vision. Damen cannot believe how lucky he is. He hates to think how different his life could have been if many things had not lined up the way they had. “You’re being cruel, Damianos.”
Damen smiles and licks his lips, already slick with saliva. “Roll over.”
Laurent does so with no argument, going to his forearms and keeping his knees spread. He looks at Damen from over his shoulder. His eyes are dark with lust. “Is this what you wanted?”
“Not quite.” Laurent gasps when Damen grabs him by the hips and drags Laurent across the bed. “I’m going to lift you up,” he warns.
Laurent helps as Damen slides his thighs over his shoulders, both careful that Damen doesn’t get kicked in the head. Once Laurent is safely perched, Damen spreads his cheeks with his thumbs and flicks his tongue over Laurent’s hole. The muscles in Laurent’s thighs flex, and Damen smirks. Until he feels Laurent’s mouth wrap around the head of his cock.
Damen groans, and Laurent takes him down his throat. It is unfair how well he does it; Damen is by no means small.
Laurent’s hands are pressed into the bed, his head bobbing in Damen’s lap. Damen is lapping his tongue at Laurent’s rim and has a fist around Laurent’s cock, his grip loose. They’ve never done this before, not in this position, so their movements are slow and tentative.
For better access, Damen releases Laurent's cock to spread him open again. He works his tongue over the pink, fluttering hole, then dips the tip inside. Laurent squeezes around him, and Damen dares to press farther.
There’s a sharp inhale from Damen’s lap, then Laurent focuses his attention on the head of Damen’s cock, tongue teasing at his slit. Damen wraps his hand back around Laurent’s cock, even though he looses his leverage to shove his tongue inside him, and instead settles to little licks to the winking hole and gentle tugs to the weeping dick.
He’s at a poor angle to rock his hips, despite their valiant effort, and Laurent takes advantage of being able to swallow down the whole of Damen’s cock. Damen is sure Laurent’s arms will get tired eventually, and wonders if he can make Laurent cum before that. He rubs his finger over Laurent’s hole, turning his head to suck kisses into his freckled skin instead. He keeps a steady pull on Laurent’s cock, pleased by his awkward, wanton squirming.
He’s barely pressed his finger inside when Laurent throbs hard in his hand, and he pulls off Damen’s cock with a gasp. His voice is hoarse. “Damianos, I’m—” His voice breaks off when Damen passes his hand over the head of his cock.
Damen smiles. He spreads his thighs for balance then goes to his back, with Laurent’s knees pressing into the bed on either side of his head. “Cum in my mouth,” he tells him, bringing Laurent’s cock to his lips.
The head is leaking over his tongue, and Laurent give slow, deep thrusts, panting and absentmindedly stroking Damen's cock. A broken cry falls from his lips when he cums. His thighs twitch when Damen swallows around him, and he holds Laurent’s hips to keep him from pulling away.
Only when Laurent is shaking does he let Laurent pull out of his mouth, then slump over him, boneless. Damen pets his flank, content and pleased. Laurent’s fist is loose and unmoving around the base of Damen’s erection, and Damen feels pride swell in his chest at having so thoroughly worn him out. “Are you okay, sweetheart?”
Laurent hums a yes.
“Do you want to sleep?” he asks.
Laurent hums a grumpy no. Damen can just picture the pout of his slick, swollen lips.
It’s another five minutes of lying there and petting Laurent’s sides before Laurent decides he’s ready to continue, undeterred by Damen’s flagging erection. He passes Damen the oil again and lies flat on his stomach.
“It’s been a long time, Damen. I need plenty of prep,” he’d said.
Now, Damen is four fingers in, and convinced Laurent will cum again any second now. Damen curls his fingers over Laurent’s prostate, watching the muscles in his hips and thighs flex, his fingers grasping the sheets. Laurent is biting his pillow, his eyes squeezed shut. Damen’s cock throbs painfully at the sight, his husband debauched and body begging for him.
“Okay,” Laurent says, meekly, against the pillow he has his face shoved into. It’s a wonder Damen heard him at all. “On your back.” Laurent's tone has little conviction behind it. Damen does so regardless.
Damen removes his fingers, his whole hand absolutely dripping in oil, and moves to follow Laurent’s orders. “Yes, sir.”
He strokes the extra oil over his cock, getting some relief from the pressure building in his balls. Laurent takes a moment to catch his breath, but Damen can see the smile on his face. It doesn’t fade as he gets his shaking knees under him. “Your turn, dear husband.”
Damen grins. He puts his hands on Laurent’s hips when he straddles him. “Husband,” Damen echoes, rubbing his oily thumbs over Laurent's hipbones. He is so deeply in love with this man. “Kiss me.”
Laurent leans over so his chest is on Damen’s. This kiss is sweet, both of them smiling. Slow and wet, tongues touching and fingers gripping. Laurent doesn’t bother to pull away before he speaks. “I’m going to ride you now.”
With little more warning than that, he leans back and takes Damen’s cock, sitting down on it without a hitch, but it’s too much too fast for Damen. A strangled noise escapes him. Damen pulls Laurent’s hips down at the same time as he thrusts up, hips leaving the bed entirely, his teeth grit.
Laurent is smirking in his lap, his lip caught between his teeth. He’s still so beautifully flushed. Laurent leans forward once more, clenching around Damen as he goes. It rips a growl from his throat. their panting breaths mingle with their faces so close. Laurent teases him, “Tell me, Damianos. Was it worth the wait?”