"Damen, I hate Veretians as much as any sane person does,” Nikandros says, frowning lightly at his friend. “But doesn’t this seem – unnecessarily cruel?”
Damen purses his lips; he knows what this looks like to everyone else, but they weren’t there . They weren’t there to hear Auguste of Vere beg Damen to take Laurent, to never, under any circumstances, let his brother go to their uncle, not to let him get his hands on him. Damen hadn’t understood, at the time, but when they’d been in the tent, negotiating the terms of surrender – Laurent white-faced and staring at his brother’s body – the Regent of Vere had placed a hand on his nephew’s waist, and Damen had understood.
“The boy, too, ” he’d said. Everyone had looked at him, surprised, even Kastor and his father, but Damen was the one to kill Auguste, so the victory was his own before it was theirs. He could demand anything he wanted.
The Regent had tried to negotiate. “Surely you’re not this heartless. He just lost his brother, Laurent needs to be with family.”
The way he’d looked at Laurent had said so many things before it said ‘family’, and Damen had been disgusted.
“ He’s coming with me.”
“We can’t give away the new crown prince.” A councilman had said. “Vere will have no ruler.”
“He’ll be back,” Damen had assured. He hadn’t - still doesn’t - know how much time will be enough, but he cannot dishonor a dead man’s last wish, and even if he could, he wouldn’t let the Regent of Vere touch a child, especially if he could do something about it. “Three years. That’s all.”
And really, the term was ridiculous, entirely senseless, but it wasn’t a request. They hadn’t had another option but to cave, not after Damen had killed their prince.
Laurent, seemingly unable to hear anything at all, hadn’t said anything at the time; in fact, even now, on their way back to Ios, he hasn’t spoken. He’s riding with Nikandros – because Damen thought it unwise to give him his own horse and assumed Laurent wouldn’t want to be close to him – and Nikandros is speaking as though he isn’t there, because he doesn’t seem to be.
His expression is hollow, eyes empty and face bloodless, and Damen wishes this weren’t necessary, that it hadn’t been Auguste’s last wish, because of all things he thought would come after the battle – whether he won or lost it – this, a seemingly vacant child riding with his best friend, was not one of them.
“I’m not doing it to be cruel,” he says to Nikandros.
“Why then?” Nikandros asks the question many of them have been waiting to ask, and Damen knows every one riding with them is listening for his answer. None of his soldiers dare question any decision he makes, but they’ve all been wondering the same thing.
“We will talk in private,” he tells Nikandros, wary of the people around them.
The trip back to Ios takes three days; as soon as they leave Delpha, they’re heroes. In Delpha, however... well, the people of Delpha stare at them with hateful eyes; they look at Laurent, offer their condolences, shove things into his limp hands or his bag because he won’t take them on his own, won’t move.
They curse – in Veretian – at Damen’s army, at Damen himself, thinking he can’t understand them, talk about the poor prince they’re taking with them. Promise revenge, if anything happens to him.
This was not what Damen expected at all; don’t they see, they’re freeing them from Veretian reign? They’ll no longer be under the rule of snakes, conniving and plotting? Don’t they see that Akielos will take care of them?
It seems they don’t.
Damen isn’t sure why riding out of Delpha doesn’t feel like a victory at all.
Damen is immensely relieved to get out of there. On the trip along to Ios, they’re celebrated and worshipped by the townspeople; they’re given the best rooms in the best inns, treated to food and women and warmth like no other. Damen could most likely enjoy it more of he didn’t have a thirteen year old crown prince to watch over.
Laurent doesn’t eat, doesn’t sleep, and doesn’t speak.
Not even when they get to Ios . Damen gives him the best guest rooms – made for foreign royalty during their stay – directly in front of his, in case anything happens, and places four of his guards outside his door, apart from the two Veretian guards he allowed to come with them.
“What’s your name?” he asks one of them.
“Jord,” the guard used to be part of Auguste’s guard, and he looks at Damen with barely concealed contempt.
“If the crown prince of Vere needs anything, you come to me.” He orders. “I assume you’ve already noticed, but in case you haven’t, at the best of times you’re outnumbered four to one.” Since Laurent will be staying right across Damen’s rooms – six of them – the guards at Damen’s door will be watching his door, too. “Don’t try something that will lead to your death and leave your prince alone here.”
He turns to his own guards.
“No one comes in without my permission.” He doesn’t like having a Veretian in his palace; this was supposed to be a victorious time for him, he was supposed to be able to celebrate, bury himself in pretty slaves and rich wine and simply enjoy , but it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen. “If Prince Laurent wants to come out, you are to accompany him at all times.”
“Yes, Exalted,” they agree, and Damen shuts himself into his room.
“Holy shit ,” He exclaims, when he catches sight of Nikandros lounging in his room.
“You said we’d talk,” Nikandros says, unimpressed. “And I want to understand why you’ve brought a Veretian into Akielos, into Ios, and into the palace.” He looks vaguely nauseous. “It’s not because he’s blonde, is it?”
“Gods, no!” Damen exclaims immediately. “No! He is thirteen!”
“Alright,” Nikandros looks immensely relieved. “Then what is it?”
Damen explains, and Nikandros listens to him stoically until he finishes, when he sighs and rubs a hand over his face.
“Fuck,” he says.
“I know,” Damen says.
“What are you going to do?”
Damen shrugs. “I hope three years will be enough. After that, he can return to Vere and I can never see him again.”
Maybe Prince Laurent will enjoy the Akielon palace while he’s here – it is a masterpiece, after all – and he’ll stay away from Damen, and they’ll never have to speak.
He should’ve known it was never going to be that easy.
Prince Laurent cries a lot. It is understandable, of course, he is mourning his brother, after all, but whenever anyone is unlucky enough to have to walk in front of his rooms, they can hear it; the servants begin to talk about him as though he’s a hostage here - which, Damen figures, is close enough – and he knows they begin to put extra sweets into his food to attempt to make him feel better.
It doesn’t work, because the food is returned as it was left, untouched.
Damen, that sleeps across from him, rarely gets a break from the crying, because it usually gets worse at night. It is two weeks before he’s forced to deal with the problem himself, since the crying stops and Damen goes to see him, trying to make sure the crying hasn’t stopped because Prince Laurent has died. He’s thin as it is, and Damen’s afraid that if he keeps turning food away for much longer, he’ll die in his rooms – or already has – and there’ll be no way to avoid another war then.
“Prince Laurent,” Damen has a tray of food in his hands; the servants swear they’ve tried everything – cooking less spicy meals, more spicy meals, sweeter, sour, heavy, light, fruits, seeds. Prince Laurent will eat none of it – so Damen brings the meal himself. It’s the closest to a Veretian meal that the servants could whip up, and Damen hopes that’ll entice Laurent to eat it. “I’ve brought food.”
Prince Laurent is, in fact, not dead. The second he hears Damen’s voice, his entire frame goes rigid. Damen thinks, for a moment, that Laurent will ignore him, but then the prince sits up, glaring at him. He’s still in the same clothes – though there’s no smell, so Damen assumes they’ve been washed – and the weight loss is evident; his cheeks are hollow and his clothes are loose on him, even though they’re laced up as tight as they can be.
“Get out,” he demands in Veretian.
“This is my palace,” Damen says blandly. “And you need to eat.”
“I didn’t ask to be in your fucking palace!” Laurent snaps at him, angry, and hurt, and scared, and Damen half expects something thrown at him. “Why have you brought me here? I do nothing but sit here all day, I don’t know what you want. You killed Auguste, you have Delpha, you-”
“You don’t have to sit here all day,” Damen tells him. “There are tutors here. Swordsmen , riders. They’ll teach you anything you want.”
Laurent stares at him, and it seems the fight has gone out of him, whether from exhaustion from the crying or malnourishment from the lack of food.
“What do you want from me?” he whispers, and he sounds so fucking young . “I don’t know what you want from me.”
Damen swallows. “I want you to eat. You’ll die if you keep turning food away.”
Laurent looks at him, seems to recover some of his previous anger. “Fuck you. Get out.”
Damen sighs, but he leaves the food at the table and walks away.
Laurent begins eating; Damen isn’t naïve enough to think that it was him that made it happen. He begged Nikandros to talk to Laurent, and though Nikandros was not enthused about the idea at all, Damen had pressed. He figures anyone will be better than the man who killed his brother, to Laurent.
He doesn’t know what Nikandros did, at first. When he asks, Nikandros says he made ‘ a deal’, which seems unnecessarily cryptic. When he finds out – through palace gossip – that Nikandros and Laurent have been going riding together, he has his answer.
It’s good, really. Even if prince Laurent still hates him – and he does – he's at least not entirely alone. Not that he likes Nikandros – or so Damen thinks, from what Nikandros tells him – and not that Nikandros likes Laurent, since he is, in his words ‘infuriating’ and ‘cold’ and ‘a bastard’.
Still, Damen thinks it’s progress.
And if he doesn’t want to speak to Damen and spend the next three years avoiding him in his own palace, Damen doesn’t care.
“I want you to teach me to fight.” Laurent doesn’t look happy to be speaking to Damen, but he is; he has freckles, from the time spent outside with Nikandros , and is looking better than he used to. It’s been slow progress, but it’s something.
“What?” he asks. Prince Laurent had the nerve to stride right into his rooms while Damen was trying to write a letter to Vere – he writes weekly updates on the Prince’s wellbeing to the council, as part of the terms – and now he’s demanding things?
“Teach me to fight,” Laurent repeats, in slow Akielon . Nikandros must’ve been teaching him. “You say I’m not a hostage here. You say I can do anything I like. I want to teach to fight.”
“Learn,” Damen corrects absently, and though Laurent purses his lips, he nods. He leans back, watches Laurent calculatingly. He is small and too thin, doesn’t have the strength of an Akielon . He cannot fight the same way Damen can. “Why me? I’m sure Nikandros is available.”
Whether or not he’d like the idea is another matter entirely.
“Auguste,” Laurent clenches his fists, swallows as though it hurts him to say the name. He seems to change his mind. “They say you’re the best. I want to learn from the best.”
Damen remembers Auguste’s sword work from Marlas ; it has been impressive, entirely different than the Akielon fighting style but smart all the same. If he hadn’t let Damen pick up his sword, he would've won the duel.
“Alright,” he says. The guilt crashes down on him like a tidal wave; he is honoring Auguste’s last wish, which is as much as he can do now, but Damen hadn’t thought about the fact that now, he has to spend three years with someone whose brother he killed. “I’ll teach you.”