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sanguinary poultice, love charm

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It’s a lovely night in Patras. Damen has drank enough to be polite, but not be drunk, has been charming and managed to sound at least halfway intelligent, and he’s been given a set of rooms in this palace that are well-situated to allow in the night breeze. He should be sleeping, and sleeping well.

But Babis, five years old and bored from having been kept with his nurses all day, is not at all interested in sleeping, so Damen is not sleeping. Instead, he’s taking his nephew on a walk around the gardens that stretch out from this side of the palace, far enough away from the still on-going party that they won’t disturb anyone, or be disturbed.

“Look,” Babis calls, pointing at yet another flower. He has pointed at every new one he’s seen, and once Damen has looked, he dashes ahead to find another. And Damen follows, content to indulge him, though truly, he’d rather be using the bed he’s been given for their stay. There will be no sleep until Babis is ready for it though, and while Damen could rouse a nursemaid, he doesn’t mind. “Uncle!”

Damen didn’t look fast enough, and now Babis is frowning. “Yes, I see. That one is called jasmine.” They have it in Akielos too, but it must be more interesting in Patras, at least to Babis.

He runs ahead again, and Damen has to quicken his pace to keep him in sight. The gardens of Patras are walled, and a veritable maze when Damen had seen them from the balconies. It would be too easy for Babis to get lost.

No sooner has the thought occurred to him, then he looks up and realizes Babis is no longer in front of him. Not wanting to shout and cause a commotion where one isn’t needed, Damen moves quickly, checking through several archways in the hedges, calling out for him. He is not yet a very big child, and he can’t have gone far.

And indeed, Damen spies him in the fourth one he looks in. He’s not alone though. There’s a blond man crouched in front of Babis, elegant clothing pooling on the stone walking path as he appears to listen very closely to whatever Babis is saying. He’s talking about home, and his toys there, how much he misses them, because the toys here are not the same, and how the nurses wouldn’t allow him outside today.

Relieved, Damen smiles, and cuts in, “And I should not have allowed you out either. What will your mother say when she finds out I let you escape me?”

Babis frowns at him. “You are the Prince, Uncle. You can just tell Mama she’s not allowed to be angry at you.”

“Oh yes, because that’s worked so well in the past,” Damen replies, entering, so he can put a hand on Babis’ head, ruffle his soft, silky curls. “You are a Prince as well. How about you tell your mother that you ran away from your poor uncle, and she’s not allowed to be cross with you?”

“I could,” Babis says petulantly, but it’s a show, a child testing his limits.

“And I will have you confined to your rooms for a week for being so disrespectful of her,” Damen warns, nipping it in the bud. He remembers they are not alone when he hears a scoff, down by his knees.

The man Babis had found stands, the hair left artfully loose from his long braid falling back as he raises his head, and even with only the moonlight, Damen is almost struck dumb. He looks as if a statue from the gardens at home had come to life and stepped down from its pedestal, his blond hair framing a milk-white face with perfect, delicate features, his eyes blue and clear.

There are traces of paint over the lids of his eyes, and Damen suspects his lashes have been darkened for the evening, but he cannot see how any of that would have been deemed needed for a face such as his.

He arches a brow, and asks, “I take it you are the Akielon Crown Prince?”

“Yes,” Damen answers, coming back to himself, and realizing the situation fully. The man is finely dressed in Patran clothes, layered and flowing, but his accent is Veretian. There is a glint of finely made pins in his hair all along the side of his head, where his braid must have been held up earlier in a more elaborate fashion, and two sets of gold hoops studded with light blue gemstones in both ears, to match the set of necklaces around his neck. Bracelets too, when he brings an arm up around his middle, with thin chains to connect to the gold bands he wears on both middle fingers, a dark blue stone set in each one.

This man is a Veretian pet, he thinks, one of the little clutch of them that had been brought by the Veretian nobility. This one must have slipped away to grasp a moment of quiet, only to have Babis, and now Damen, find him.

“Apologies,” Damen offers. “Babis could not sleep, and I did not think we would be disturbing anyone on this side.”

“You’re apologizing for disturbing me?” The man looks confused, but his tone is mild, uninterested even. It’s hard to read his expressions, his face a carefully blank slate. There’s still a dab of dark red on his bottom lip, from the paint he must have been wearing earlier. “I do believe it’s supposed to be the other way around, Your Highness.” He inclines his head to Damen first, and then Babis.

“You were here first,” Damen says, hoping the man doesn’t think Damen is going to report him to the guards. He’s still not entirely clear on how the contracts work for the pets, if they are as slaves, who need leave from their masters to wander, or if they are really just the companions the Veretians claim them to be. He has seen pets treated both ways since the few Veretians present had arrived.

Babis is growing bored with being ignored. He’s not used to such treatment from Damen when it’s only them. He asks, a little too loudly, “Are you a pet?” He’s been very confused about them since he’s seen them, Damen doing an admittedly poor job of explaining their role. There were just things that Damen didn’t quite know how to say to a boy just barely past his fifth birthday, or thought he should be saying, either.

“Am I a pet?” The man echoes, and again crouches in front of Babis, a smooth, graceful motion, belying years of training. “And what do you know of pets, Your Highness?”

“Pets are people Veretians pay to be their friends,” Babis says, clearly proud he can answer the question. “So they don’t get lonely when they’re away from home. I asked my uncle if I could have one, but he said he would get me a dog from the kennels when we go home.”

There’s something very wrong about those two things being said together, and Damen’s feels heat rush up the back of his neck. There’s a flicker of something close to how Damen is feeling across the man’s face, but no true change. He simply says, “I believe a dog would be a better companion for you, yes.”

“The kennel master will show me how to train it,” Babis says, little mind now easily turned to the subject of the promised hound.

Damen is hoping he forgets by the time they go home. Polyxena, Babis’ mother, will not be pleased to find out Damen has said such a thing without consulting her. He’s still stinging from the tearful outrage he’d faced when she’d found out he’d placed Babis on a horse by himself.

“That’s very important,” the man says to Babis, in the same tone Damen imagines he would use for an adult as well. “It’s not easy to train a dog. They can become very mischievous, very easily. A hound will chew your toys to bits before you’ve finished your breakfast, if it’s bored.”

“My dog wouldn’t do that,” Babis says, but he looks leery, turning his eyes up to Damen. “Uncle, my dog won’t eat my toys, will it?”

Ah, he spies his opportunity to fix his previous hastily-made promise. “Hounds do chew on things, Babis. You should ask the kennel master to show you the sticks he uses for training.”

His nephew’s small face looks less eager now, more unsure. Then, up in one of the trees, a night bird calls, and his eyes widen, wandering away to get closer, attempting to sneak and not doing a very good job of it.

Without Babis, Damen feels off-balance in the man’s presence again. He is just inhumanely beautiful, as though everything Damen has ever fantasized about took on a life of its own. “I’m sorry, I didn’t ask your name,” he attempts.

“I did not offer it either,” the man says, the corner of his mouth almost tilting up into a smile.

Oh, and he’s quick too. That does nothing good for Damen’s nerves. “Could I ask for it?”

“Could you?” he demurs, and turns so he’s looking at Babis again. “He is very energetic.”

“My brother was too, when he was young,” Damen replies, though he only knows that from what the nursemaids and Hypermenestra have told him. Kastor was already a boy half grown when Damen was born, and by the time he was old enough to follow after his brother, Kastor had been almost a young man, more interested in training swords and horses than toys and games.

And then Kastor was interested in nothing but arguing with Damen, and their father, in turn. Until that last day, the last argument before Kastor had strode off to face the Veretian Prince in combat, and had not returned. Leaving behind a broken family, full of regret, and a child growing in the womb of his favorite slave.

Damen will never tell Babis, but he had been the subject of Damen’s last argument with Kastor, when Damen had sided with their father against his brother. He cannot take back what he said that day, but he can do what his brother was never given a chance to do, and love his son.

“I have heard that,” the man says, tone careful. “That he is the son of your brother, King Theomedes bastard. The one who fell in Marlas.”

There is still pain, to hear it spoken aloud. “We do not think of bastards the way you do in Vere,” Damen says. “But yes, my elder brother, Kastor, was Babis’ father. And he did fall in Marlas, honorably, to single combat with your King.” Then the Crown Prince, Auguste of Vere, first of his name. It should have been Damen who had faced him, but his father had worried over the injury Damen had suffered a day previously, Damen’s leg still wrapped in bandages.

And then Kastor had declared he would go, and had ridden out before anyone could give the order to stop him. He had been so angry with the pair of them, over the things their father had said, and how Damen had nodded along with him. He had been so angry, and Damen had thought that when he came back, when he won, Damen would take it back. Would side with Kastor, when his brother was safe beside him again.

Except he had seen Auguste take the upper hand, and disarm Kastor. Damen had expected that to be the end. Until he had seen, from where he sat upon his horse, too far away to help, to stop him, Auguste had lowered his own weapon, offered Kastor mercy, and Kastor had instead attempted to rush him. Perhaps thinking his superior size would be enough.

It had not been.

“It was honorable,” he says again, not wanting this Veretian to think he has cause to be afraid right now, alone with Damen in these gardens. “And your King did not take advantage when the peace was declared.” He could have, too. Theomedes had looked like a man only a breath away from death himself, still feeling all the pain of his son’s death. If it had been the previous King of Vere, Aleron, maybe he would have. But it had been Auguste who had stepped into the tent that day though, wearing the pin that marked him as King, and that was when they had found out that Auguste too was in mourning.

That, and what Damen had seen that day, had stayed his hand when any other day, he would have slain the man who killed his brother. But Damen too was tired of war by then. And he had time to think of the baby growing in a slave girl’s belly, the last piece of Kastor still in this world. Time to think of what life he wanted that child to have. It was not blood and gore and loss.

It is this, Babis wandering around a garden at night, feeling perfectly safe approaching a strange Veretian.

“His Majesty has been a very good King for these five years,” the man says. “Peace has been prosperous for both our kingdoms.”

It allows Damen a chance to turn the subject. “Are you often in court, at Arles?”

The man narrows his eyes, by just a hair. Damen knows he would not notice were he not so transfixed. “I am often in court,” he answers. “That is where I am needed.”

His master must be a very high ranking lord, to be in Arles so much. His master would have to be, to be able to afford a beauty such as him. Damen does not know much about the details of how pets are contracted, but he knows they are bid on after showings, too similar to horse auctions for Damen to be comfortable with it. But this one could have easily caused a bidding war in the court, Damen could see.

“Until now, when you are needed in Patras,” Damen says, still keeping half an eye on Babis. He’s found a stick somewhere, and is determinedly tracing it along the lines of the stones of the pathway. “Your patron was invited to the wedding?”

The man raises a shoulder in a casual shrug. He’s watching Babis too, in the way one fond of children does. It pleases Damen. He’s always pleased when people admire his nephew. “Why else would I be in Patras? It’s certainly not for the company.” His tone is just shy of disdainful, eyes towards the palace.

He did come out here to seek solitude then, and Damen and Babis are disturbing it. So Damen nods at him, smiling, and then goes to pick Babis up, the boy frowning but going easily enough. “Again, apologies for disturbing you,” he says. “It is now long past this one’s bed time, and perhaps he will finally take it to heart.”

The man only tilts his head a little, face still unreadable, and murmurs, “Good night, Your Highness.”

Damen is sorely tempted to ask him to call Damen by his name, but restrains himself. Five years ago, he would have spent as much time as needed to talk this man into joining him in his chambers. This is not five years ago though, and Damen would not be so reckless as to risk offending whoever the man’s master is, and causing upset in the Veretian court.

And he has a nephew now, who falls into a half-sleep on the way back to the rooms and is nearly there entirely when Damen lays him down, pulling the blanket up over him. The servant sleeping in the other bed rouses when they enter, but settles again when she sees it's only them. Damen returns to his own room, nodding at the posted guards as he does.

When he is finally in his own bed, he lets his mind linger on that beautiful face, turned up towards him, the moonlight painting his hair almost silver. It is unlikely Damen will see him again, Veretian pets mostly keeping to their masters’ sides or to the solarium. Like birds, caged until someone wanted to admire their wings.

Still, he thinks of that face, that tall slim body hidden by layers of Patran robes, and he allows himself a fantasy, of that mouth on his, his own on that skin. The fantasy turns into a pleasantly warm dream, as he falls asleep.

The next day is more feasting; a breakfast that Babis is wide awake and eager for, despite his late night wanderings, and then a long walk with the Patran King. Talks of politics really, masquerading as a walk, the King’s younger brother along as well. They’re both older than Damen by around fifteen years, though with the younger brother, it might be closer to ten. Babis stays with the servants brought from Akielos, and most of their guards as well. A precaution, more than true fear. Patras has no desire to war with anyone. Cannot afford to, if what the Akielon Council has heard is true.

The King and Prince are easy with one another in a way Damen can’t help but envy. This could have been himself and Kastor in a few years time, once tempers had cooled with age. He would have always been Damen’s most trusted counsel. Kastor had been cynical in a way Damen wasn’t, seeing deceit where Damen was sure there was only honesty. And sometimes, he had been right. More often than Damen had liked admitting.

He had only ever seen his brother be soft with Polyxena. She had been his favorite for years, pretty and patient, quieter. Kastor had been known to give her gifts, even. Not unusual, for a favored slave, but unusual for Kastor.

“So it’s true?” The King, Torgeir, asks. “Akielos really is ending their slaving?”

It’s been a slow process. Damen could not singularly declare slavery abolished in one day. That would have ended with civil unrest, and too many thrown in the streets. The kyroi would not have stood with him either. But when he had freed Polyxena, intent that the child in her, Kastor’s child, could never be claimed as a slave, soon his thoughts had turned to all the other slaves with children growing in them. Of the children already born to slave women, who were property themselves until they were ten. And what future did they have, but to sell themselves as slaves? And so the cycle went on and on.

Damen had decided to end that cycle. There will be no slaves in Akielos by the time he is crowned.

“Eventually,” he answers. “We brought none with us, as you saw.”

“Is Akielos to become as Vere then, and look down on us?” Torgeir asks.

There are slaves walking with them now. An interpreter, unneeded for them, and one holding a parasol, though the sun is not so hot. The Patran guards are slaves as well, though with their training, they’re worth more than the armor they wear.

“Or perhaps Patras will come to see things differently,” Damen replies. It is colder here, despite the summer. Patras is more mountainous, and the air is thinner, he thinks. It cannot hold the heat the same way that Akielos can. Most of his men were smart enough to bring their winter leggings, and heavier robes. “What of the rumors we have heard? That Patras intends to arrange a marriage with His Majesty, King Auguste?”

“I have daughters enough you may both have one if you like,” Torgeir offers easily. “I will not offer Sigrid though.” Sigrid, his oldest girl, and the Crown Princess. It’s a shame, because as far as Damen can tell, she’s the only sensible one.

The younger girls are pleasant, pretty things, but young and silly, people who have never had responsibilities, and never expect to. He cannot blame them. They are all likely to marry middling nobles, and live off the crown’s coiffers for all their days.

Torgeir exhales through his nose, then says, “But I have been told you will never take a queen.”

Damen thinks before he speaks. “I have not given it enough thought to know.” But no, he will not likely take a queen. He decided that when he held Babis. If Damen has a child, there will always be those that try to use that child to usurp Babis, and Damen will not see history repeat itself.

“Of course, there are many eligible men here in Patras as well,” Torveld says.

Before Damen had left, Hypermenestra had pulled him aside. He had assumed it was to again express her mandates for Babis’ care while they were away, but it had been about this instead. Warning him that weddings put people in mind of more weddings, and Patras would try their hardest to match him to one of theirs. She had told Damen to dally as he liked if he was tempted, but remember Patras, while a valuable trading partner, was not the future partner his father saw for Akielos. “You are eager to fall in love,” she had said. “I only ask you to be careful about who else knows that.”

Damen wasn’t entirely sure what she meant, and still wasn’t. ‘Eager to fall in love’. What did that even mean? Still, Hypermenestra had rarely given him useless advice, so he holds it close now.

“I’m sure” he says to Torveld now. “But I’m afraid I don’t have the time to properly court anyone, right now, and I would not do the men of Patras the disservice.” It’s neatly enough said that he doesn’t think he can be misunderstood, and he doesn’t think he gave offense either.

There are some Veretians out walking as well, and Damen looks at the pets with them. Light hair is common in Vere, but the two he sees are both obviously women. The one he met last night was slim, but tall, with strong shoulders and narrow hips. There would be no mistaking him for one of these two soft, full-figured women. Veretians have strange ideas about clothing, he thinks, not for the first time. The two noblewomen themselves are laced up tightly, no pretense at Patran fashions, but the pets are wearing as little as a dancer in the Akielon court would.

Not the one he saw last night, he recalls. His clothes had been layered, soft, Patran clothes, but they had mostly covered him.

“Do you know one of them?” His eyes lingered too long, and he’s been caught.

“No,” he answers, smiling, and changes the subject.

At dinner, a pretty young man with light-blue eyes and red-gold hair is sat beside him. He’s admittedly attractive, but Babis, on Damen’s other side, doesn’t take to him. He’s often jealous of Damen’s attention, and by now Damen is long used to it. He allows Babis to sit on his lap once the boy is done eating, and while the man makes the effort to engage him, Babis is uninterested. He chatters about his day to Damen, and when the man tries to talk, Babis often interrupts.

Damen loves his nephew dearly, but he has done what no one else ever managed to do, keeping Damen all but chaste these past few years. Perhaps that is what Hypermenestra meant, and was only phrasing it more delicately.

Whatever she meant, Damen does not believe he’s at risk from this young man. Babis has ruffled his feathers, and he’s clearly put out by being ignored in favor of a child. Still, after one of the nursemaids comes to take Babis to their rooms once people start to mill about, Damen makes attempts at conversation, if only to pass the evening. The man perhaps takes it the wrong way, his attentions more flirtatious as they take a turn about the room, but Damen begs off as soon as it’s polite, and leaves the man in the clutches of a rather aggressive Patran noblewoman.

He’s not quite ready for bed, but he’s not much in the mood to stay in the too-hot and too-crowded halls, so he ventures out into the gardens again. Some exercise, in the fresh, sweet air, will do his head good.

Inevitably, he gets lost. Really, he wishes he was more surprised. One of his guards, Atkis, had said something about it before Damen had dismissed him and the other two at the entrance, but Damen, feeling prideful, had refused to listen. And now he is lost. Granted, he is lost in a palace garden, so he’s not terribly concerned.

He finds himself in one of the courtyards, and decides to lie back on the grass, cut short. His chiton is dark, so he’s not worried. For a time, he counts stars, enjoying the quiet, but then he hears a sound that is not a bird or the wind, and rolls to his feet.

The person who has entered the courtyard has gotten much closer than anyone should have. But pets wear soft slippers, and silk does not make much noise. And apparently, neither does the pet wearing them. He’s standing on the stone path that winds around the grass, the blond from before, looking at Damen coolly.

Ah. He had thought this courtyard seemed familiar.

“And again, I am intruding,” Damen offers, embarrassed. He very much hopes this man does not take this as Damen seeking him out. He won’t deny he’s spent most of the evening searching for his face amongst the few Veretians present, but it wasn’t a true mission.

“This is not my garden,” the man says. “So how can you intrude?”

That’s very true, but Damen still feels as though he is. “I got lost,” he admits, sheepish under that gaze. He truly has the bluest eyes Damen has ever seen. His face was painted again tonight, but again, he’s scrubbed it all off. The red is still clinging to his mouth though, and there’s a hint of gold around his eyes. He’s clad in greens and pinks, soft, to match the gold he must have worn on most of his face. Many of the Veretian pets were painted up elaborately tonight, as though they were wearing masks. It must be a fashion in Vere.

Another sound, by the entryway, and Damen turns to look. There’s a lightly-armored man standing there, with dark hair, wearing blue brocade. Damen nods to him, acknowledging his presence, and the man inclines his head respectfully.

“You have a guard?” Damen asks. “Your patron must worry over you.”

“That’s not the right word,” the man says. “Patron. But I suspect you know that, because you don’t make any other mistakes in Veretian.” He tips his head to the side, loose hair failing with the motion. “Do you think you’re being polite?”

It’s very sharply asked, but not cruelly. Direct, Damen supposes is the word. He struggles for a response. “Do you prefer master?”

“Do you not like the word? What do your slaves call you, then?” His tone is still cool, unaffected, but it gets a rise out of Damen, regardless. Maybe even because of the tone.

“There are no slaves in the palace anymore,” Damen says, hearing the heat in his own voice. “And there will be no slaves in Akielos by the time I am King.”

The man does not respond to Damen’s anger in any discernible way, his eyes still on Damen, expression blank. “There are slaves here. What do they call you?”

“Do you think I have the power to change the laws in Patras?” Damen asks, confused now. “Charm your King into marrying Sigrid, and see more done than I could ever do here.”

“Akielos trades with Patras,” he says, his eyes turning up towards the sky as he walks away from Damen, his back to him. The robes he is wearing become sheer in the back, a fine gold chain hooking from his collar to the base of his spine. Damen has to work very hard to keep his mind on the conversation for a moment, his eyes on the chain andon the expanse of skin almost exposed.

The man is milky-pale all over, his shoulder blades sharp, the knobs of his spine just barely visible.

“And who will go hungry first, if Akielos stops trading with Patras?” Damen asks, keeping his wits about him. His eyes linger though, on that chain. “It won’t be the masters.”

Those eyes turn on him again, the man looking over his shoulder. “True enough. They’d probably eat their slaves before they free them.”

It’s so absurd, Damen chuckles, and he thinks he catches something almost like a smile on the man’s face, before he turns away, eyes on the stars once more. “And Vere trades with Patras as well,” Damen points out. “Why must Akielos be held to a higher standard?”

“Well, all standards must look high from where you’re standing,” the man says idly. “From what I’ve seen, your people can’t even be trusted to dress themselves properly. I can only imagine what you wear in Akielos.” There’s finally a hint of feeling in his voice, and even if it’s derision, it delights Damen to have earned it.

“Careful you don’t imagine too much, you might faint,” Damen says. “I’ve heard many tales of Veretian constitutions.”

From the entry, he hears a sound, and he looks again to the guard. The man has the look of someone who is very steadfastly not listening to them, eyes staring straight ahead.

Damen nods at him again, and then goes closer to the blond. Careful, so the man isn’t surprised, Damen reaches out, and follows the chain part of the way with his fingers. He means to make a joke, but the man has gone as stiff as one of the statues he so resembles. Damen immediately releases the chain and takes a few steps back. “Apologies,” he says. “I overstepped.”

“Yes, you did,” the man confirms, putting even more distance between them.

Again, Damen turns to the guard standing watch. It’s possible he has just gotten the pet in a lot of trouble, that this guard is not to protect the man, but to protect their master’s possessions. The guard’s face is still empty of any emotion though. And he doesn’t look like someone eager to run off and tell tales.

Damen tests it though. “What is your name?” he asks the guard, and is satisfied when the man first looks to the blond for approval.

“Jord, Your Highness,” he says, when the blond inclines his head. The guard shifts and Damen sees the sword at his side more clearly, or rather, the scabbard. It’s fine leatherwork. This is not some nothing little infantryman, though he wears no rank Damen can discern.

“How did you end up with nighttime duty?”

The guard, Jord, finally shows emotion, sighing, and intoning, “Played dice for it, Your Highness.”

“Perhaps,” the blond says, “This will teach you to not play dice with Lazar.”

“It was Orlant, actually,” Jord corrects. “He borrowed Lazar’s dice.”

Whoever Lazar is, Damen bets he calls the dice lucky, and he bets again it’s because they’re weighted, and weighted well. And the ease of the admittance, now that he has the blond’s approval to speak, reassures Damen.

Damen turns his attention back to the blond, lowering his voice. “Could I ask your name?”

“You seem capable of the question,” the man replies.

That’s a challenge, Damen thinks. “What is your name?”

“Laurent,” the man, Laurent replies. It’s a common enough name, amongst the Veretian higher class. Damen remembers that even the second Prince, the King’s younger brother, is called that. It suits this man though. Once Damen knows it, he couldn’t imagine him being called anything else. “And you are His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Damianos.”

“Yes, but you knew that last night as well,” Damen replies, daring to come a little closer again. “Do you plan on coming out here every night?”

“If I say yes, will your plans then include the same?” Still the dry, but ice-cold tone.

“I don’t believe I can be faulted for wanting to see you again,” Damen replies. “But no. It would mean I would find somewhere else to walk.” Laurent did not look at all flattered by the compliment to his beauty, but he does look surprised by Damen’s admission, his eyebrows raising just a little. “I don’t blame you for wanting some quiet, and I don’t press where I’m not welcome.”

He thinks to leave, and maybe get pointed in the right direction by Jord, but it’s his turn to be surprised when Laurent offers, “Will you walk with me?”

Nothing will come of it, and Damen knows that, but he won’t deny himself the chance to spend a little more time in Laurent’s company. He’s somewhat abrasive, but he’s not fawning over Damen either, and he’s tired of that. Besides, Laurent is beautiful, and Damen enjoys looking at him. So he follows him, feeling Jord trailing them, a respectful few seconds behind them.

As they walk, Laurent reaches out and brushes his fingers along the hedges that wall them in. “Vere was surprised you decided to attend,” he says.

They would be, Damen supposes. His father had been invited, not Damen. But Theomedes was already past his prime when Damen was born, and losing Kastor had done his father a heavy blow. Travel is beyond his abilities. For the past few years, Damen has stayed by his side, not only to ease his father’s mind, but because he wasn’t eager to be parted from Babis. And so Akielos has sent no royal party to any events for almost six years time.

“Babis is old enough to travel,” Damen answers. “And Patras is not a particularly difficult journey.”

“You wished to show off your heir?” It’s not a true question, more as though he’s mocking Damen.

“I happen to find him quite impressive,” Damen replies, playing along. “You have heard him speak Veretian. He’s almost fluent.” Damen had been adamant about that part of Babis’ education. He’s had nursemaids speaking Veretian to him since he was born, determined Babis would not grow up ignorant of the language of their new allies, who were still so recently enemies. “And he knows his sums very well for his age.”

“You Akielons are very good at numbers, aren’t you,” Laurent muses, pulling his arm in to clasp the opposite elbow as he walks. But then he adds, “His Veretian is very good. Yours is better.”

“I have twenty years of practice on him,” Damen says, eyes still on the chain that runs the length of Laurent’s spine, the way the sheer fabric ends at the small of his back. They’re loose, his clothes. It’s the style of the cut. If Damen pressed his hand to just that spot, there would be nothing really stopping him from dipping lower. “Do you speak any Akielon?”

Laurent flicks his eyes to Damen, and it’s very obvious he is well aware of where Damen’s thoughts lie. “A little. But I never saw the need to improve. It’s not a very pleasing language to speak.”

“Is that your way of saying you weren’t very good at it?” He knows he’s right when he sees two high spots of color show on Laurent’s face. “Akielon is hard to learn if you don’t start young,” Damen offers. He’s seen many struggle with it. “What parts were you interested in learning?”

In his well-bred, polished Veretian accent, Laurent says, “Go fuck yourself,” in Akielon, and Damen laughs.

“Your accent is very poor,” he teases.

“And yet, you understood me perfectly,” Laurent replies, with an obviously false sweetness.

“Only because I am used to hearing Veretians butcher it,” Damen says. “Your King, he had an interpreter who spoke it rather well though.” A young, mousy man, slight. He had not been needed, Damen’s Veretian fluent, but he had not wanted Auguste to feel he was possibly being deceived. “Do you speak Patran?”

“Of course I do,” Laurent says, in Patran. “Only idiots go to a country where they don’t speak the language.”

“And do all the Veretians here speak Patran?”

“No,” Laurent replies pridefully, but then seems to realize what Damen just tricked him into saying about the other Veretians here. There’s a twitch in his jaw, before his mouth becomes a firm line, and Damen can see him digging his fingers into his own arm. “So you came to show off your nephew,” he then says, after a pause. “That your family still stands strong.”

“We’re Akielons, we don’t know another way to stand,” Damen says, and allows himself to get a step or two ahead of Laurent. He half-expects him to let Damen leave, but he also thinks that Laurent is the sort who absolutely has to have the last word.

He’s proven right when he feels the presence at his elbow, Laurent saying, “You did not stand so strong when you agreed to the terms at Delfeur.”

“They were not bad terms,” Damen says. “Delpha is now a jointly-held territory of both Vere and Akielos. With her own council, as she asked.” It had never occurred to Damen, until he had spoken to the people who live in the border state that Akielos and Vere had fought over for so long, what they wanted. Not until Delpha’s leaders came to the peace talks, and spoke. “Delpha does not wish to be a prize in a tug of war between giants. And I do not blame them.”

He must not have given Laurent the reaction he was angling for. He knows he didn’t. Laurent is trying to test the limits of Damen’s temper. Why, Damen doesn’t know, but it’s fun to play this game.

“And when Delfeur is full of little Akielon-Veretian bastards who don’t know country they belong to?”

Damen thinks about it, as he’s thought about it a thousand times since the agreements were made. The Veretian King had expressed his own worries over it. That it would become something they could not contain, one day. That Delpha would decide they were not Akielon or Veretian. “Then maybe we should both be kind to them, and never give them cause to hate us.” It’s not much of a plan, but for now, it’s all Damen has.

It doesn’t impress Laurent either. “That’s your plan? Be nice and hope for the best?”

“If you have a better one, I’m listening.”

Laurent huffs, looks away from Damen. “If I did, do you not think I would tell it to my own King before you?”

“You have the King’s ear then?” This pet is beautiful enough Damen would believe it.

But all he says is, “Our King listens to good advice.” It’s not said with any hint of pining, not that Damen expected that. There is an emotion there though; an almost annoyance. It’s odd, but maybe not. Laurent would possibly know the King more personally than Damen does. “And what of you? Do you listen to good advice?”

“There are a few kyroi who would argue that I never listen to anyone,” Damen says, grinning. “I’ve been told I’m hard-headed.”

“So hard-headed you got yourself lost in a garden rather than allow your men to accompany you,” Laurent says loftily.

That’s true. “Yes, but it worked out rather well for me.”

“And how’s that then?” Laurent murmurs, tone losing any inflection it had.

“I got to have the most interesting conversation I’ve had since I arrived,” Damen says, as finally, they come to the entrance. “And I was guided out.” He smiles when Laurent just looks up at him with the hint of a smirk. “Thank you for your help.”

“You are very easy to lead,” Laurent replies, falsely-sweet again. “Good night, Your Highness.”

Damen nods. “Good night.” He nods to Jord as well, still behind them, and takes his leave. He’s reluctant to do it, wants to ask Laurent if he can walk him back to the rooms he’s staying in. But that would be pressing his luck, and he knows it.

He wakes early the next morning because Babis decides that Damen needs to be awake, and there’s not much that will dissuade him otherwise. Damen has learned that the hard way. So he gets up, and takes Babis to bathe, while several of the attendants fetch them breakfast. He spends it telling Damen about a dream he had, and then asking questions about what they’re going to do today, and what Damen thinks his mother is doing at home without him.

“Finish chewing before you speak,” Damen reminds him, and Babis opens his mouth, showing Damen his food. “If you do that in front of your grandmother, I’m going to be very cross, because she will blame me.”

Babis grins cheekily at him, and swallows, then pokes his tongue through the gap in his teeth, where one of his baby teeth had fallen out on the journey here. He’s been fascinated with doing it ever since it happened. Damen had only been relieved that losing it had seemed to be a painless process, considering how Babis had cried as an infant when they were coming in.

“Do you want to go with the party to the water today?” Damen asks, and Babis nods, taking a drink from his cup at the same time, but managing not to spill. “It will be mostly Patran ladies. So you have to be on your best behavior.” Damen has no particular desire to go himself, this more of a picnic for the ladies of the court. But they’ll have their children with them, and all of these women are married. So it’ll be a quiet day, at least for Damen.

Four guards accompany them, along with one of Babis’ nursemaids, in case Damen needs to leave at any point. This one, Artemisia, speaks Patran as well, so Damen assumes she’ll be fine talking with the other women, if she’s not needed.

Everything has already been set up down by the water, the children already playing, but Babis does not go to them, instead clinging to Damen’s coat. At least he is, until he perks up, and then dashes off from Damen, towards where a Veretian noblewoman is sitting on a rug under an umbrella, her retinue around her.

Her retinue which includes Laurent, kneeling to the woman’s left.

“Hello,” Babis calls, stopping in front of him. “I think you’re wrong. I asked my guards about dogs, and they said they don’t chew on anything but rabbits if you train them right. So a dog won’t chew on my toys.”

They’re somehow back on the dog, but Damen doesn’t much mind. Babis is better than any hound, and he’s found a far better prize than any rabbit.

The Veretian noblewoman turns, eyebrows arched, but smiling a little. “And who is this, Laurent?” she asks, as Damen approaches.

Laurent stands, the motion as graceful as before. “Lady Vannes, this is the heir of His Royal Highness of Akielos, Prince Damianos.” He inclines his head to Damen, bowing at the waist a little. “And this is His Royal Highness.”

“Prince Charalambos,” Damen says to the woman, introducing Babis by his proper name. “The son of my elder brother, Prince Kastor, and my heir.” Babis, who never knew Kastor, has no reaction to his father’s name. He still doesn’t seem to quite grasp the whole idea, but Damen knows it will come in time.

For now, Babis is playing with one of the drapes of fabric that fall around the loose trousers Laurent is wearing, smiling up at him. “I lost a tooth,” he tells Laurent, poking his tongue through the gap again. “Uncle says I’ll get another one.”

Laurent nods. “You will, yes. Did you leave the lost one for the mouse?”

Obviously confused, maybe thinking he’s misunderstood a word, Babis looks up at Damen, and asks in Akielon, “What does he mean, ‘the mouse’?”

Damen doesn’t know, but while Laurent might not understand the language, he understands Babis’ confusion. “In Vere, children leave lost teeth beside the bed, for a mouse to collect. The mouse leaves them a sweet or a coin.”

“I didn’t know that!” Babis exclaims, and tugs hard on Laurent’s clothes, Laurent’s eyes widening just a hair. “I don’t know where it is. I spit it out, and my nurse took it to throw. She said we had to throw it.”

Instead of reassuring Babis, Laurent crouches in front of him, carefully rearranging his clothes, and then waving his fingers in front of Babis’ face. Babis watches, and Damen does too, trying to work out what Laurent is doing. Then Laurent reaches forward, as though he’s going to touch Babis’ ear, and when he brings his hand back there’s a copper coin pinched between his fingers. “The mouse must have found it,” Laurent says, quite casually, and offers the coin to Babis.

Damen is impressed at the sleight of hand, so of course Babis is, taking the coin, and then begging Laurent to do it again.

“You’ll have to lose more teeth,” Laurent tells him, remaining crouching in front of Babis. “But I do not know if the mouse comes to Akielos.”

“Does it, Uncle?” Babis asks.

“I don’t think so, no.” He’s never heard of any story like that, and he cannot think of why a mouse would want children’s teeth. “Give the coin to your nurse, so you do not lose it.” The nurse, standing a respectful few steps away, holds out her hand obligingly when Babis runs over to her with it, slipping it into her pocket.

As it turns out, Laurent is somehow even more beautiful in the light, even with his face painted in the make-up the Veretian pets all seem to wear. The paint does nothing to hide the smooth column of his neck, or how blue his eyes are. The clothes he’s wearing today show off his collarbone, and Damen is tall enough he can see that they dip low in the back as well.

“Where did you learn to do that?” Damen asks.

“A man in a tavern,” Laurent answers, a hint of a smile in his eyes, then dips his head again. His hair is all pinned back, none of it falling with the motion now, as he turns to the noblewoman. “This is the Lady Vannes, of Vere. I am a member of her retinue for this trip.”

The noblewoman does not stand for Damen, though she should. The woman by her side, her pet, if Damen had to guess, respectfully keeps her eyes down though. The Lady Vannes though, looks up at Damen, smiling in a way he’s not entirely comfortable with. “And how did you come to be introduced to His Highness?” she asks.

Laurent answers quickly, though her eyes were on Damen. “We met last night, at the dinner, my Lady,” he says, and Damen understands. It’s as he thought then, and Laurent was not truly supposed to be wandering. Either that, or he doesn’t want any appearance of impropriety to be reported back to his patron, whoever he is. Lady Vannes cannot be, but she has two other men sitting with her party, so she must have borrowed pets from others in Arles to keep her retinue even.

“Babis was very fascinated by his hair,” Damen says, which is not untrue. He had babbled about it at length the other day. “We do not have many with such coloring in Akielos, and I do not think he has ever seen anyone so fair.”

When Babis dashes back, he goes right back to Laurent, again surprising him, Damen can see, Babis taking Laurent’s hand. “I want to go look at the water,” he says, and starts walking, clearly expecting Laurent to follow with no argument.

“Well, by all means,” Lady Vannes says, waving a hand at Laurent. “I do not believe you can deny a Prince of Akielos your company.”

“Of course not, My Lady,” Laurent agrees, his tone even, but Damen catches him making a face as they walk towards the water, Babis leading, and the Akielon guards finding places of their own to stand.

When they are enough distance away they will not be overheard, Damen says, “You did not have to. Babis has heard no plenty of times.”

“And does he listen?” Laurent asks, voice cool, but he smiles when Babis releases him to run to the edge, where the water is shallow, lapping at the shore. It’s a slow river, dammed up further upstream, away from the palace grounds, so there’s little danger. There are several older children standing hip deep in it, splashing one another.

Damen looks back at Lady Vannes, who even from here he can see is watching them, whispering to her pet. “Your patron is not here?”

“I never said that he was,” Laurent answers, crossing one arm over his middle to hold his opposite elbow. “Lady Vannes is aware that Patran’s prefer guests to bring even numbers in their retinues, which you know as well. Otherwise it upsets the partners for dancing.” Damen is aware of that too, but he did not bring a large enough party for it to matter much to him. “And Lady Vannes is very wealthy. She holds a significant estate in Vere. She enjoys demonstrating that.”

By showing she could afford to bring so many people who were here for little except decoration. “He sent guards for you though, so he’s not a complete fool.” There’s a different man today, but dressed the same as Jord was, standing at a distance.

“Oh? Am I going to run off with the first man who looks my way?” Laurent drawls, then scoffs. “The first Patran lord who offered to buy me looked as though he hasn’t seen his own cock in twenty years. The second one, I believe his could be found in his wife’s pocket.”

Damen laughs, keeping an eye on Babis, who is now gathering rocks from the river bed and stacking them. “And the third?”

“I stopped keeping track.” He shifts his weight, and gathers his clothes a little about himself. There are gold pins in his hair, hidden, but catching the light when he moves. “And how many pets have gotten lost in the halls outside your rooms?”

“None that I know of,” Damen answers, thinking about it. He had seen his guards talking to one or two, but he doubts it was for the reason Laurent is insinuating. “We don’t have pets in Akielos though. I think they would be disappointed.”

“Pets don’t want to stay pets forever,” Laurent tells him, almost rolling his eyes. Not quite, but Damen can tell he wants to. “Most want to find a very wealthy, and very stupid person who will marry them. It’s much easier to get coin, if you’re the one holding the purse strings.”

“Is that your plan?”

The expression Laurent makes is the truest one Damen thinks he’s seen from him yet. A mix of surprise and humor, as he looks up at Damen, eyes wide. “If I wanted to be married, don’t you think I would already be?”

That is a very good point. Damen wonders what his plan is. He doubts Laurent would give him so much as a hint if he asked though.

Babis looks up at the pair of them. “Help me!” he demands, pointing at his tower. “I can’t get it to stand.”

“How do you ask politely?” Damen prompts. And then adds, “In Veretian.”

He makes a face at Damen, but thinks about it for a moment, then asks, “Laurent, will you please help me?” That was not what Damen expected him to say, and he goes to help Babis himself. Laurent’s clothing is expensive, Damen is betting.

But because today is apparently a day for unexpected things, beside him, Laurent slips off the shoes he’s wearing, and then pulls his trouser legs up, tying them off at the knee. The layers he’s wearing he shrugs off, and hands to Damen with no fanfare, Damen taking them just because he doesn’t know what else to do.

He’s fair all over, his legs especially. His arms are now bared to the shoulders too, and Damen can see the gentle cut of muscle there, can see just how well-formed Laurent truly is. The clothing Damen is holding is still warm from his skin, and Damen has to work very hard both not to stare, and not to have any kind of reaction.

When he’s gotten a hold of himself, so to speak, he summons a guard over, Pallas, and hands him the clothes instead, with a direction to take care with them. Pallas raises his eyebrows at Damen, but says nothing, just stands there, as Damen goes to join Laurent and Babis, shrugging off his own coat and spreading it on the ground.

“Laurent,” he says, showing him he can sit.

Laurent looks a little taken aback, but drawls, “It’s going to get dirty.”

“It’s wool,” Damen replies. “I doubt this is its first encounter with dirt.” It doesn’t earn him a smile, but Laurent does sit, and doesn’t move away when Damen sits beside him, a respectful distance between them. That means Damen is mostly in the dirt and grass himself, but he had expected this today, and his chiton is a dark red.

For a time, he just watches Laurent help Babis, showing him how to make the base bigger, so the tower can go higher, the pair of them fitting the rocks together as best as they can. “We have a tower like this, at home,” Babis is telling him. “It’s by the sea. The sides are all slimy.”

“I’m sure,” Laurent answers, again, using the same tone Damen would expect to hear him use with an adult who had just told him something interesting. “Do you ever see any animals on the rocks?”

“Yes,” Babis answers, but then frowns, and looks at Damen, asking in Akielon, “Uncle, how do I say seal in Veretian?” Damen has to think himself for a moment, before he remembers, and tells Babis. “One time, I saw three seals on the rocks. They were very fat, and they were noisy. They sounded like dogs. I see them in the water sometimes, but that time they were really close.”

“I’ve never seen one,” Laurent says. “I’ve seen drawings.”

“Then you should come to Ios,” Babis says. “They’re always around.”

Damen thinks about that; Laurent, in Ios. That’s a dangerous thought though, so he dismisses it. Bad enough where his mind is going, looking at Laurent’s bare legs, so close to his own. Without the layers he had on, his back is exposed too, from the nape of his neck, down to just below his shoulder blades. Skin as fair as his will burn easily, if he sits like this too long.

“Ios is very far from where I live,” Laurent answers. “And I am needed at home, in Arles.”

“Why?” Babis asks.

“Because I have a very impulsive older brother, and he often gets himself into trouble, when I am not there,” Laurent replies. “Or rather, he gets himself in trouble anyway, and I have to get him out of it.” He smiles at Babis then, as though he’s sharing a secret, and Damen can only look at him for a moment. Laurent smiling, so sincerely the corners of his eyes crinkle, just a little, is truly something to see. “Brothers are very troublesome, you know.”

So Laurent has family in Arles. Damen wonders what he means by that, his older brother getting himself in trouble, and Laurent having to save him. He might only be joking, likely is. But it would explain why someone as clever as Laurent would contract themselves as a pet. Money, and the influence of a noble, if needed.

“I don’t have any brothers,” Babis says, stacking another rock on top of the tower. “Is it cold in Arles? My uncle was there once, and he said it was.”

“I was in Marlas,” Damen corrects. “I have never been to the capital.” He has been north of the border several times since then, but only to meet with Auguste’s messengers and a few generals, with his own kyroi in attendance.

“I would like to think I would have known if we had Akielons in Arles,” Laurent says lightly. “Though I don’t see how anyone could miss your uncle.”

Babis nods. “Uncle is very big.”

“Yes, he is,” Laurent agrees.

Before he can think, Damen says, “I’ve never heard any complaints,” and is immediately gratified by the color that rises in Laurent’s face. The joke is over Babis’ head, so he’s not worried about him repeating it. Even if it was, he’d take the explanations he’d have to provide to Polyxena and Hypermenestra both, just to see that reaction.

They build the tower, and a servant comes by to tell them the food is being served. While Laurent adjusts his trouser legs, Damen takes the rest of his clothes back from Pallas, still standing there dutifully. He holds the robe out for Laurent to slip back on, careful of where his hands are, but enjoying that Laurent allows it of him. The back of his neck is pink from the sun already.

While Pallas gathers up Damen’s coat, Babis holds up his arms to Damen in a wordless request, and he bends at the knee, lifting him up easily. “Are you ready to eat?”

“Yes,” Babis agrees. “My belly is being loud.”

“Is it?” Damen asks, and lifts Babis higher, so he can press his ear against Babis’ stomach, Babis laughing at him. “I don’t know, are you sure that’s your stomach? It sounds like there’s a lion cub in there.”

“There is not,” Babis argues, smacking at Damen’s head. “Put me down!”

“No, I think there is,” Damen teases, holding Babis up still, and then saying, teasingly serious, “We can’t have that. Pallas, bring your sword, we’ll have to cut it out.”

“No!” Babis cries, laughing, and trying to squirm away, Damen bringing him down to hold him properly. “It’s not a lion, it’s my belly. I want cake.”

“If I let you have cake for a meal, your mother and your grandmother will be very upset,” Damen says, still teasing. “So you have to promise not to tell them.”

“I promise,” Babis replies, grinning. Kastor had smiled so rarely by the end, but Damen remembers it. And he can see so much of his brother in Babis’ young face. It aches, and perhaps always will, but it’s not as sad as Damen would have thought. Not when his memories are alive in Babis.

He looks to Laurent, and for just a moment, there’s something soft in his expression. He likes children, Damen can see that. And Babis is easy to like, a happy, good-natured child, for the most part. “Are you allowed to join us?” he asks, on impulse, loathe to part with him just yet, but not wanting to risk getting Laurent in trouble.

Laurent tips his head to the side, then looks to Lady Vannes, who seems as though she’s completely forgotten Laurent in favor of the Patran noblewoman now sitting with her and her pet. “I doubt she’d notice,” he says. “As you can see, she’s in negotiations.”

What Damen can see is her hand on the noblewoman’s thigh. “Is that what you call that in Vere?”

“Perhaps we’re just more honest about it,” Laurent answers. “Lazar?” That must be this guard’s name. “We’ll be joining His Royal Highness and His Highness.”

“No argument from me,” Lazar replies cheerily, openly looking Pallas up and down. Pallas does not react, Damen’s coat draped over his arm.

They don’t sit far from Lady Vannes, but far enough away she cannot hear them. Babis gets his promised cake, and then finally joins the other children, when some boys invite him to play a game with them. Babis has missed his friends since he’s been here, and Damen would like to see him work off his energy for the day.

Lady Vannes’ negotiations seem to be going well. “She is not loyal to her pet?” It’s not Damen’s business, but it seems to defy the purpose of a pet, to take another lover.

“How can you be disloyal to someone when you have made them no promises?” Laurent asks. “Pets are not lovers. You don’t have poetry commissioned for them, you do not give them sweet words. It’s a transaction. A pet gives their body, and a master gives them money, housing, gifts. I know of one who wears a king’s ransom in jewelry every day.” He makes a considering face. “Though his patron might actually love him. He can afford to though.”

“What do you mean?” Damen doesn’t quite understand.

“He’s wealthy. He can more than afford to keep his pet contracted for life, and his pet will be perfectly happy that way.” Laurent does not look as though he approves of that.

Damen cannot see anything wrong with the idea, himself. Hypermenestra is not under anything as crass as a contract, but she enjoys a place of status in the palace, and his father gifted her her own lands, her own home, with the understanding she would be supported by the crown until her death. She never wanted to be queen, and has never tried, as far as Damen knows, though she certainly had her chance after the death of Damen’s own mother. She seems content with her lot.

“So you do not want marriage, and you do not want a permanent place,” Damen says aloud. “What do you want then?”

That same cool look from before is back on Laurent’s face, but Damen can see the way his eyes are betraying him, the little crinkle there. “If I told you, wouldn’t that make it too easy for you?”

Damen smiles at him, then turns to watch Babis for a moment. He’s already tall, for five, but Kastor and Damen had both been the same. He’s faster too, easily keeping up with the other boys, who are maybe two or three years older than him.

“You are very fond of him,” Laurent says, his tone a touch softer.

“Of course I am, he’s my brother’s child.” The only child Kastor will ever have. “What about your brother? Does he have children?”

“Not yet,” Laurent says. “But he is not married.”

“That doesn’t stop people from having children.” He gestures at Babis, as example. “Even in Vere, there are bastards, whether you approve or not.” Laurent’s face tells him he should probably stop talking, but Damen cannot help himself. “Are you sure you’re not an uncle yourself?”

“I am not,” Laurent says firmly. “And if my brother knows what’s good for him, I will not be until he has a wife.” That’s the end of that subject, or it should be, but Damen is curious about him. Laurent does not really behave much like the other pets he has met. There’s no obsequiness, no false sweetness.

So Damen keeps on in that vein. “So what’s good for your brother is whatever you tell him is good for him?”

“Generally,” Laurent says, rearranging his clothes as he pulls his knee to his chest. “What was yours like, then?”

That’s a difficult question. Damen would rather remember Kastor as he was at his best, when they were younger. Before Kastor was always picking a fight with either Damen or their father, and seeming to perpetually be in one of his darker moods. It’s hard to remember those times though, when even now his strongest memory is that last fight, and seeing his brother fall. “Our father used to say we were as different as the sun and the moon. Kastor was sharper than me, in both mind and tongue. He didn’t much like other people. He preferred training, or learning.” A memory does come back to Damen, and he smiles. “It annoyed him that I was better at languages than him. He never had the head for it. He was better at almost every subject, so I don’t know why it got to him the way it did. Likely because I was so much younger. He was seven years older.”

“So his tongue was sharper, but yours was more talented,” Laurent drawls, and Damen laughs. He’s very sure that the sound Lazar just made was a choked off snort as well, but he’s working very hard to school his expression into something more stoic when Damen looks.

There’s color in Laurent’s face again when Damen looks at him, but it could just be from the sun, Damen supposes. He’s very beautiful, and Damen wonders how many times he’ll have to look at him before his mind is able to distance itself from the thought. Not yet, at the very least. He will be remembering Laurent’s bared arms and legs later, when he is alone in bed tonight, he knows that for sure, but he thinks Laurent likely knows it too.

“Did you want to come to Patras?” Damen thinks to ask.

“Did your guards?” Laurent asks, which Damen should have expected.

He looks back at the two standing by them, Atkis and Pallas. "You said you had no objections," he says to Atkis, and to Pallas, “I remember you volunteering, or was that someone else?” Damen actually remembers the conversation very well. Pallas had asked to be included for reasons entirely unrelated to duty. He’s popular, amongst the men of Ios who favor other men, and one suitor had apparently not taken his dismissal well. Pallas had thought a few weeks absence would do more than another refusal.

It looks as though Pallas remembers the conversation very well too. Atkis as well, to judge from his smirk. “I volunteered, Your Highness,” Pallas replies simply, in Veretian. “And I have been enjoying our stay.” He does not quite manage to hide the very unimpressed face he makes, when his eyes land on Laurent. “But then, I have purpose here.”

Damen means to tell him that he’s out of line, but Laurent is quicker. “My purpose is to serve as Vere needs. Is that not what you do? Serve as Akielos needs?”

“Akielos does not need me on my back,” Pallas replies, and Lazar’s hand drops to the knife Damen knows is hidden at his waist. Just as quickly, Atkis' hand falls to the pommel of his sword.

Laurent rises, as Damen turns to silence Pallas before something is done that cannot be taken back. “No,” he drawls, looking Pallas up and down, a ghost of a sneer on his face, as he starts to walk away, Lazar turning to follow him. “Akielos wants me on my back. Don’t worry though. Lazar here will still have you.”

And then he’s walking away, back to Lady Vannes, Lazar attempting to smile at Pallas as they go, hands up in a gesture of goodwill. Damen knows better than to call Laurent back, and he looks to Pallas, annoyed. “That was rude,” Damen says, in Akielon.

“He’s rude,” Pallas returns. “What is he, compared to you? He does not treat you with any respect.” Atkis adds nothing, but it’s clear he agrees from the way he watches Laurent still.

“And it is for me to decide if I want to humor it,” Damen says, leaving no room in his tone for further argument. He likes them both, is closer to them than his other guards, but if Damen wants their opinions, he’ll ask for it.

Pallas murmurs an apology, head bowed, Atkis doing the same, but the damage is done.

That evening, after Babis has been put to bed, exhausted from a day of play and sweets, Damen goes for a walk again. He does not do so thinking he will see Laurent again, sure that he will find somewhere else to wander tonight, avoiding Damen.

He’s looking at a statue of what he thinks is the Patran goddess of the hearth when he sees movement out of the corner of his eye. It’s Laurent, appearing from around a corner, in different clothes. He must have attended one of the smaller evening gatherings with Lady Vannes. His face is freshly scrubbed, his hair falling loose again, framing his face in soft curls.

“And now I’ve found you,” he says, coming to stand beside Damen, again crossing an arm over his middle to grasp the opposite elbow. “I meant to apologize. I did not say goodbye to the Prince.”

“He was very upset,” Damen says. He was, Babis wanting to know where Laurent had gone. Demanding, more like. “He actually asked if he could buy you.”

Laurent is still for only a moment, and then he laughs, looking just as surprised as Damen is by the action. He covers his mouth, not quite hiding that he’s still smiling, and asks, “What will you do, when he is older, and demands to know just how many lies his beloved uncle told him?”

“I will tell him he was five, and it was not my place to explain those things to him.”

“Akielons are very prudish about sex,” Laurent muses, and starts to walk. Damen follows, because he wants to. There is no guard tonight, when he looks for Jord, or perhaps Lazar again. Laurent is alone. “Or is that just you?”

It’s not said as an insult, not exactly, but Damen remembers what Laurent said to Pallas. “We do not feel the need to shout our wants, no, but you seem to have no trouble seeing them.”

Laurent glances over his shoulder at Damen. His robes are plunging in the back again, another sheer one beneath to keep a pretense at modesty, but the chain is there again as well, and Damen’s eyes are on it. He looks up, meets Laurent’s, and perhaps it is only the sun he got earlier, but Damen could almost believe that’s not the only reason for the pink he spies on Laurent’s cheeks. “You don’t shout, but you’re not subtle either.”

There’s little point in going down that road with Laurent. He is contracted, and while the masters might be allowed to stray, pets are not. Damen knows that. No matter what Damen wants, Laurent is not free to offer it, and Damen will not push. So he changes the subject, asking, “You are alone?”

“My men over-indulged,” Laurent says, slowing so Damen can catch up, and they can keep pace with one another. “They’ll live, though they might wish they didn’t in the morning.” He sounds very smug about that, and Damen huffs.

“They have been brought to a royal wedding in a peaceful country, where the drinks are free,” Damen says. “Do you begrudge them their fun?”

“No, but you might,” Laurent says. When Damen raises his eyebrows, asking, Laurent says, “Your man Pallas seems to have forgiven Lazar his earlier threat.”

He can’t see why that would interest him. “Pallas is free to go to bed with who he likes, and he often does.” His good looks are not the only reason Pallas is so popular. “And I don’t see why that would bother you. There’s unlikely to be any bastards born of that union.”

“He is your loyal soldier, but he lifts his skirt for the first Veretian that gives him a smile?” Laurent taunts softly. “He is old enough he remembers when we were at one another’s throats. His memory is not very long.”

Damen still cannot see why any of this is of interest to him. Still, it gives him a chance to tease, “And here you are, Veretian born and bred for at least a dozen generations, and you are walking alone in a garden with the Akielon Crown Prince.”

“I like to know my enemy,” Laurent suggests, his tone not slipping once.

“Our countries are friends now,” Damen reminds him.

“Oh, I like to know my friends even better.” Again, he raises a hand, running it along the hedge wall. “In Vere, we understand that friends very easily become your worst enemies. Again.”

“Do you not want the alliance?” He’s trying to suss out Laurent’s intentions, his true meaning, but there’s something very twisting about the way Laurent speaks. His words, his tone, they are at odds with one another, and still more at odds with his body language, how relaxed he seems, despite being here, alone, with Damen. He doesn’t fear Damen.

Laurent stops, and looks up at Damen, face a blank. “I was at Marlas. Does that surprise you?”

It does. Damen is not sure of Laurent’s age, but he would have placed him somewhere around twenty, too young to be at the battlefield. “Why would someone allow their child there?” Except, there were people who lived there. Was Laurent one? His accent places him as high class, but for all Damen knows, it’s practiced, and not his original one.

“My father and my brother both went. And so I went with them. I was thirteen.” He speaks of it easily, as easily as he spoke when he was teasing about Pallas. But his eyes betray him. There’s sadness there, and that far-away look Damen knows too well.

“Your mother allowed that?”

Laurent looks away quickly, and starts to walk again. “She died when I was a child,” he says, and Damen suspects his voice is still even only because he is looking somewhere else. “And my father died at Marlas. This alliance, this peace, this is everything I could have hoped for as a child, when I was there. Children have been born since then who have never known war, and I would hope that they never do.”

That last argument with Kastor comes to mind. Theomedes, dismissing him outright at first. A slave could not bear a Prince’s child. Kastor snarling back that Theomedes had not seemed to mind when it was Hypermenestra bearing his child, and their father dark in his fury at the insult to her. Damen, trying to make peace between them, but still. Still. He had sided against his brother, said something mealy-mouthed and weak, about how it would look.

He will never forget how Kastor looked at him. As though he could not believe Damen was siding against him on this. As though he could not believe Damen would betray him. But he did. Damen did, and now there is Babis, and Damen would do anything to keep Babis safe. To see him grow up happy, and untouched by war and strife.

“Then why do you seek to rile me up?” Damen asks now.

Laurent turns again, looking over his shoulder at Damen. “Perhaps I just want to know if I can.” And he is very beautiful, absolute perfection in the form of a man. He is very beautiful, and he is only teasing, Damen sees. More harshly than anyone has ever done with Damen, but he admits, it’s getting a reaction from him. That chain, it hangs loose now with Laurent’s twisted pose, and the sheer fabric is folding in such a way Damen wants very badly to press his hand against it, feel the skin just there.

When Damen raises his eyes, he sees that Laurent is watching him intently. He knows, of course he knows. He’s already said as much. So there’s no point in saying it aloud, asking for things he cannot have.

“I am sorry, for your father,” Damen offers and comes up to Laurent’s side again.

Laurent shakes his head, just a little, and then says, “I kept my brother. That was enough.”

“No, it’s not,” Damen says simply, because he has the opposite; he kept his father and lost his brother. It is not enough, and never will be, but the past is carved in stone, and the dead cannot live again. He cannot have Kastor back, and Laurent cannot have his father. “And I am sorry.”

“You didn’t kill him,” Laurent says, and when Damen tries to say that might not be true, because it might not be, Laurent cuts him off with a very annoyed, “You are very noble. It’s very irritating, and very predictable. You did not kill my father. I saw my father fall. It was a stray arrow, from our own side.”

That is an unfortunate truth of war. When things get right down to it, in the blood and the dirt and the rage, it can become hard to tell who is who. It is a small relief though, to know that amongst the Veretians he felled that day, and all the other days, none were Laurent’s father. He did not know the man, and never will, but it bothers him to think that he personally could have caused Laurent pain.

They walk in silence for a time, neither of them really choosing a direction. The gardens are still, at this hour, the sky above them clear. But he notices that Laurent walks with his arms crossed over his chest, his jaw tight, but not with anger. “Stop,” Damen bids him, and shrugs off his coat, offering it to Laurent. “It’s a different one,” he promises.

Instead of taking it, Laurent turns in expectation, and Damen helps him into it. It was made for Damen, and it covers Laurent’s hands to his fingertips, almost falling off his shoulders. “I suppose you’re not used to putting clothes on a person,” Laurent says, instead of thanks.

“It’s easier,” Damen says, and his hands do linger this time, on Laurent’s arms, but only for a moment too long before he pulls back, remembering himself. “I don’t know how anyone gets you into all that. Or how your countrymen do up their own trousers without help.”

“Pets have many purposes,” Laurent answers, pulling Damen’s coat up around himself. It’s red wool, striped with gold, the colors of Akielos, and Damen feels something stir in him at the sight of Laurent wearing them. But he puts that away, or tries to. He will be using this memory later. “Pallas is more than a guard to you, isn’t he? He’s your friend, as well.”

They are, as much as two people of such differing stations can be. “We came up together. He was one of those boys I trained with, when I was young.” And he had been chosen for Damen’s personal guard, so they had stayed in the same circle. “He’s always attracted attention.”

“Yours, at one point?” It’s not asked with any inflection, but there’s a knowing look on Laurent’s face that Damen enjoys dispelling.

“No,” he says, cheerful in his honesty. “I would not have said no, but I am not what he likes.” He had told Damen more than once, when stories told amongst brothers-in-arms had turned to boasting, as it often did. “Lazar is though.” It’s always been the source of Pallas’ troubles. He likes men who are a little sly, a little rough. And Lazar did not look as one who had always been a royal guard. “What is your patron like?”

“You keep using that word,” Laurent says, but less harshly than he expressed it before. “Do you want to hear that my patron is very old, and I am meant for nothing other than decoration?” He still walks with his arms folded, but now Damen thinks it is to keep the coat on. The nights are very cool here in Patras, but Damen’s always run hot. “It is what I would say, if someone asked me about my patron.”

Honestly, Damen would believe that of half the pets at Arles. Pets are not only beautiful, he’s noticed, they’re talented. Most of them are dancers, singers, storytellers, even linguists. More than one Veretian has a pet they’re using as a translator here in Patras. They’re not all meant for sex alone. They’re a symbol of status. To show that a noble could afford to contract someone, support them, for nothing other than entertainment and decoration, as Laurent said.

But he asks, “And would it be true?” The light from the moon is lightening Laurent’s hair again, as they walk into a more open garden, turning it almost silver, his skin as porcelain. A few curls have fallen into his face. “Or is that only what one says when a stranger asks?”

“Are we strangers?” Laurent stops, looking at the fountain in the center of the garden. It has a statue in the center, a swan with its wings spread, neck arched towards the sky.

“You do not call me by my name.”

“It’s not my place.”

Damen shrugs, trying not to stare at him too much. Night suits his coloring, is all. “I am not your Prince. And you are not my subject.”

Instead of responding to that directly, Laurent sits on the edge of the fountain. “Why did you introduce your nephew by a different name?”

“I didn’t,” Damen says, trying to understand, before he remembers. “That’s right, it’s not the same in Vere. Charalambos is his name, his proper name. In Akielos, you have your formal name, the one used in introductions, and for strangers. Then you have, uh, it translates directly as small name, but I do not know if there’s a Veretian term for it. It’s what you’re called by your family, your friends. So I am called Damianos, but anyone who knows me better would call me Damen.”

“And what would you have me call you?” That’s another challenge; a tease even.

“By this point, you could call me Damen, I would think.”

Laurent’s mouth doesn’t so much as twitch. His eyes give him away though, bright with amusement. “I could.” The wind blows, and Laurent pulls the coat up some more, his only sign of discomfort.

Damen sits beside him, blocking the wind, and before he can think better of it, reaches forward and pushes Laurent’s hair back behind his ear. His hair is very fine, looking all the lighter when contrasted with Damen’s hand. He does manage to think better of it before he lets his hand linger, so there’s that at least.

“You take liberties,” Laurent says.

“Apologies,” Damen says, trying to sound as though he means it, leaning forward and clasping his hands together. “You don’t like Patras, do you?”

He almost expects Laurent to give him his coat back and leave. Damen couldn’t hold it against him. This could be seen as a compromising situation for Laurent. But Laurent says, “I neither like, nor dislike Patras. It is a place I must be for the time being. That is all.”

That’s an interesting way to see it. “I miss home,” he says. “I think you would like Ios. It’s warmer. And it’s very beautiful. The buildings are all open to the air. Painted a hundred colors, not like here.” He can see it, in his mind’s eye, the city stretching out. The homes and shops and what not, painted white, decorated with blues and pinks and oranges. The sea, stretching out, blue as blue could be, until it touched the sky. “You can always smell the sea. Hear the gulls.”

“I’ve seen the sea, and I’ve heard gulls,” Laurent replies. “The sea is cold and grey, and gulls are worse than rats, because they can fly.”

Damen laughs, Laurent’s tone so dry and unimpressed. “I would like to hear how you describe the mountains and the gardens here.”

“Adequate,” Laurent drawls, and Damen laughs again. “It’s a garden. It’s a very nice garden, but I’ve seen gardens before. I’ve seen mountains before.” He graces Damen with another cool look. “I’ve even seen a Crown Prince before.”

He must mean Auguste, before he was crowned. “I’m taller,” Damen offers.

It earns him another laugh, and Damen is pleased by it. He looks around the courtyard, surprised to see a flower he recognizes.

Damen stands, and offers his hand to Laurent, more out of habit than anything else. Laurent does not take it, rising on his own, but follows Damen when indicated that he should. “This is yarrow,” he says, admiring the flowers.

“It looks like a weed,” Laurent replies.

“It is not,” Damen argues. “It’s useful. Yarrow can help stop bleeding. It’s why we also call it soldier’s woundwort. My father sent seeds of it here, years ago. Another wedding, I think. I am surprised the gardener decided to use them.”

Laurent raises his eyebrows. “Your father sent an herb used for wounds as a wedding gift?”

“Yarrow is a symbol of everlasting love, in the myths,” Damen tells him. “Once it’s grown, it can live through anything. Drought, flooding, neglect. It’s a tradition to give it to a lover, or someone you care for. Or to a couple being married, for well wishes.” He really is pleased to see it, and that it’s doing well.

Before they had left for the campaign in Marlas, Hypermenestra had pressed a satchel of yarrow into his father’s hands, and had done the same for Kastor. But then she had the third, for Damen, and he had been pleased, ducking his head down so she could kiss his temple as well, allowing her to pull him close. “Keep them well,” she had asked of Damen. “They’re too hotheaded, both of them.”

All he had been able to give her when they returned was his own grief, and Kastor’s ashes. That, and the secret Kastor had told them, the one showing in Polyxena by the time they came home. She had forgiven him, if only because he could give her hope.

This time, when he had left, she had given him another satchel of yarrow. And had asked of him again, to keep the one she loved above all others safe. So he had brought Pallas, and guards and nurses who would slit their own throats before they allowed harm to come to Babis.

“I would like it if you accompanied us tomorrow, when we go riding,” Damen offers on a whim. “Babis likes you. He keeps trying to do that coin trick.” The offer is sincere, but he doesn’t want Laurent to think he has any sort of underlying intentions. “And I think your guards would appreciate some air.”

For a moment, Laurent seems to consider him. “The coin trick isn’t difficult,” Laurent says. “I could show him.” He turns from Damen, starts walking again. “And you’re right. My men would like a chance to get some air that doesn’t reek of perfumes.”

He does not wear any, Damen notices for the first time. There is no scent of it clinging to Damen’s coat when it is given back to him at the garden gates, and there was none earlier on his clothes. Perhaps his patron does not like it.

The image Damen conjures that night is of Laurent, still wearing Damen’s coat. He is beautiful, and sharp-tongued, and Damen knows he cannot have him. But he still takes himself in hand at the memory of his skin, that fine chain running down the length of his spine. Damen could very easily snap that chan with one hand, and loosen the Patran silks Laurent wears, press his hands and mouth against all of Laurent’s skin.

He imagines all that hair, loose at last and spilling around Laurent’s face as Damen fucks up into him, those long-fingers seeking balance against Damen’s chest. Laurent would be quiet, Damen thinks, not a showy lover at all, but that would make any sounds he made all the sweeter. He could grip Laurent’s hips tight, bring him pleasure, could rise up to cup the back of his neck, kiss him.

It’s the thought of kissing Laurent that finishes him, of being pressed against him, inside him, and being able to bring Laurent undone.

Damen lies there after, getting his breath back, then gets up and washes, has a drink of wine from the decanter that a servant left for him. It does him no good to indulge in fantasies, but he supposes it does no harm either.

The next day, Babis is excited to find Laurent waiting for them at the stables, already mounted, Jord and another guard, a stranger, with him upon their own horses. The stranger, that Jord introduces as Orlant, looks as though he would dearly love to not be in the hazy morning sunshine, but he does not complain.

Babis has a pony of his own, at home in Ios, but here, Damen is not willing to risk it, so Babis rides in front of him. He is not pleased by this, insisting he is big enough to ride on his own. One of the younger Princesses had even offered her own pony for him. But Hypermenestra had bade him to keep Babis safe, and safe he will be.

The horse Laurent rides is a fine one, and he sits well, not only as one accustomed to riding, but one who is good at it. He keeps pace with Damen’s own mount easily, as they ride, his hair all gathered and pinned back to be kept out of his eyes. Babis talks to him, tells him about his morning, and asks about the coin trick again, practically straining out of the saddle.

“Do you have nothing to say to me?” Damen asks him, not offended, but a little put off. He’s not used to Babis preferring anyone over Damen, excepting for his mother and grandmother. And even with Hypermenestra, it was always a coin flip who he’d choose. Maybe it is only because Laurent is new, and so different.

Babis gives him a look that tells Damen he is still being blamed for Babis not being allowed to ride on his own. He accepts the sulking, and does not interrupt again, until they come upon the cleared area that Torveld had told him of. Damen dismounts, and lifts Babis off, helping him balance until he gets his legs back.

The servant carrying their basket joins the other two in preparing an area to sit, as Damen watches Laurent swing off his horse. He is a tall enough man, and easy with the motion, needing no help from his guards. His clothes are no less fine this morning, even if they are less fussy, but he’s wearing good riding boots. They’re worn, well used. “Do you ride often?” Damen asks.

“Every day if I can,” Laurent answers, pulling off his gloves and securing them in their strap on the saddle.

Pallas, already down from his own horse, takes the reins of Damen’s, and makes a comment in Akielon about Laurent riding that has Damen glaring. Laurent has admitted he’s far from fluent in Akielon, but the tone likely conveyed plenty.

Indeed, Laurent drawls, “I at least know better than to put a horse away wet after a long ride.” He touches his hair, checking the pins. “Lazar was rather useless this morning. You should take better care.”

“Apologies,” Pallas replies easily in Veretian. “I am used to Akielon steeds. I overestimated the stamina of the Veretian breed.”

From where they stand by their horses, Orlant and Jord both snicker. Damen has no doubt Lazar will be the subject of many jokes in the days to come.

The conversation has gone over Babis’ head entirely, and he frowns at them all, before grabbing Laurent’s hand and pulling him towards where the servants are setting up. “Show me how to make the coin appear,” he pleads.

There is little choice for Damen but to follow after the pair, watching how Laurent looks down at Babis with genuine amusement. When they sit, Laurent is quick to produce another coin, and shows Babis step-by-step how to perform the sleight of hand. Laurent has the advantage though, his fingers long and more agile than Babis’. Try as he might, he cannot seem to get the way of it.

It frustrates him, but Laurent is just as quick to soothe, before Damen can. “It took me a very long time to learn this. You’ll have to practise, just as I did.”

Babis is quickly distracted by Pallas offering to allow him to brush his horse’s mane, one of the knots having come loose. He allows Babis to sit on his shoulders, Atkis doing most of the work it seems of getting the lock combed out and braided back up.

Since he is far enough away now, Damen asks, “And how long did it take you to learn that trick?”

“An hour or so,” Laurent confesses. “But it would not do to tell him that.”

“It was kind of you to lie,” Damen says.

“I did not,” Laurent says, reclining on his arms, an easier pose than Damen has seen in him previously. Laurent has seemed so stiff before, posture perfect. Maybe his clothing does not usually allow easier movement, or maybe he’s allowing himself to relax around Damen. “An hour is a long time for me to learn something. Half of that was spent on me convincing the man to teach me though.”

Damen smiles. “Was he more interested in teaching you something else?”

Beside him, Laurent lolls his head back so he’s looking at Damen, and smirks. “What else could he have taught me?” It’s bait, and perhaps too easily offered.

So Damen suggests innocently, “Perhaps he wanted to teach you how to whistle a broom.”

“How to what?”

The phrase hasn’t translated correctly, Damen thinks. “You never heard a cook or a servant say that?”

“No,” Laurent replies, sounding confused, but curious. “What does that even mean?”

“If you whistle right, the west wind will fetch you a broom,” Damen says. He’s heard the phrase so much throughout his life, it never crossed his mind they wouldn’t say it elsewhere.

Laurent asks, “Why the west wind?”

“Because spirits live in the west wind.” When Damen says it all aloud, it sounds very silly. A story for children. “The west wind might bring you a broom, or a good day of sailing, or sweet dreams. Or a mother might pray to the west wind to bring her children home safe at night. A farmer might ask for it to bring rain.” He’s never thought about it much, beyond a few curses or a few pleas when he was desperate. “What do you pray to in Vere, for good things you would not trouble the gods for?”

“When I was small, my mother used to tell me to pray to the forest spirits, but my mother was from the Vaskian border.” After a moment of what looks like true consideration, Laurent shrugs. “Vere isn’t like Akielos, or Patras. We have many gods, but they stay to their own lands. My father made offerings to the altars, as he should have, but my brother and I were not raised with any particular loyalties.”

It makes Damen chuckle. “Veretians...you cannot even agree on gods. How do you manage to agree long enough to be a whole kingdom?”

“We agree on more important things,” Laurent says primly. “The main point being that we are Veretians. We do not need gods to tell us that.” After a few moments pass though, Laurent says, “When I pray, I pray to the horse goddess my mother spoke of.”

That, Damen can understand. No matter how good a rider one might be, horses are unpredictable, and one misstep could be the last for rider and horse alike.

Over by their own horses, Atkis is letting Babis help tie off the new knot in the mane. Then he checks it, Pallas distracting Babis so that Atkis can in fact redo it entirely, and Damen smiles. Babis is very clever for his age, but not that clever.

“What do you do, when you are in Arles?”

Laurent seems surprised by the question, but only for a flash of a moment, and then his expression settles back into that bored mask from before. “I wouldn’t think you would need it spelled out for you. Your reputation is known even in Vere, Prince Damianos.”

That’s enough to cause a little heat to rise in Damen’s face, but he has been blessed with dark skin, so it thankfully does not show. Laurent is not looking at him anyway, his eyes on the horses. “I do not believe you were lying to me last night. That is not the role you serve.” Laurent is beautiful, there is no denying that, and he is clearly aware of the effect he has on men such as Damen, but his mannerisms betray him. There is no seduction or flirtation in his words, or the way he stands, and sits. The other pets he has seen here clearly want to be perceived as desirable, but Laurent does not. “So what do you do?”

He has to wait a while for the answer, Laurent’s jaw tight. Damen is unsure if he’s offended him or not. He is nervous, Damen recognizes, when he sees how Laurent’s hand is clenched in his trousers.

“I meant no harm,” Damen says, trying to fix his blunder. “I was just curious as to how you spend your days. What you do, what you like to do.”

“I enjoy reading,” Laurent says quietly, still not looking at Damen, adjusting his hair. “And I like to ride, when I can. When we were younger, my brother and I would race. He is older, by almost ten years. He could have won every time, but he used to let me, and pretend I had done it fairly.” His tone has warmed again, to a fondness Damen envies.

“Kastor never let me win anything,” he says. “In his mind, I think that would have been coddling me.” No, Kastor had never let him have an inch of ground. Damen had to earn it, but he thinks he was better for it. If Kastor hadn’t been there to knock Damen down, he might have gotten too big, too fast. He wouldn’t have pushed himself as hard as he did, to be better, stronger. “You are close to your brother?”

“We’re all each other has,” Laurent says. “I wish he would marry though.”

“You would like to have some nieces and nephews?”

“I would.” The sun brightens his hair in the opposite way of the moon. In the moonlight, it was silvered, but now it is gold, the pins all but disappearing into the color. Without the make-up and the shadows, Damen can see his lashes are a dark brown, not true black, but he doesn’t need it. His eyes are still bright blue, looking at Damen.

Ah, he is staring, and he has been caught. No matter.

“You’re not subtle,” Laurent tells him.

“I was not trying to be,” Damen replies, sitting up more fully when he sees Babis is coming back.

He does not come to Damen though, and instead sits himself in Laurent’s lap without asking. Laurent’s eyes widen, but he does not force him off, just awkwardly shifts so they’re both comfortable.

“I helped fix the horse’s mane,” he says proudly to Laurent. “Did you see?”

“Yes, I did,” Laurent says, looking at Damen. “Wouldn’t you rather sit with your uncle?”

“No,” Babis replies simply, and Damen only shrugs at Laurent, leaving him to his fate and lying back. “Is ‘Laurent’ your small name? What is your real name?”

“I’m afraid ‘Laurent’ is the only one I have,” Laurent says dryly, and Damen can feel how he’s boring holes in Damen, but he has no intention of helping him. He was the one who sought a child’s favor, and now he must pay the consequences.

They cannot stay long, pleasant as it is to sit here. Damen has a meeting with the King and several of his council, and he must visit with the queen before dinner this evening. He suspects she would like to open talks about brokering a marriage between one of her younger girls and Akielos. Not with Damen, but with the son of the kyroi on the border. A minor alliance, but an alliance, all the same, and from what they have heard, Patras needs to ensure that their trading routes stay open, and the kyroi himself had written that he had been approached on the idea already.

So their peaceful morning ends, and the rest of the day goes as planned. The Queen is a pleasant woman, like her husband, and she does indeed bring up the idea of one of her younger daughters being matched with the kyroi’s oldest son, a young man of about sixteen, if Damen remembers right.

Babis spends the day with his nurses, but is able to come to dinner with Damen, and enjoy the party. The soon to be wedded pair are both present, the son of one of the King’s cousins, and a girl whose peerage Damen cannot remember. Pretty enough, the both of them, but very young.

After Babis is put to bed, Damen joins everyone else in talking and watching the dancers. There are not many Veretians here, mostly a few of the wealthy and some middling nobles from the border, from what he can ascertain. Lady Vannes was sent to represent the court, and as he talks, he realizes she is not only wealthy, but very high-ranking. A member of King Auguste’s council.

“I’ve never met her,” the young man Damen is speaking with says. He is not of noble blood, he had told Damen, but he is a merchant of considerable wealth himself. More importantly to the Patran King, he is connected, and that was likely why he was invited. “I’m told she’s close friends with the second Prince though. I wouldn’t know if it’s true of course. I’ve only been invited to court once, and His Highness is not one for the public.”

That matches what they know in Akielos. The second Prince prefers to keep his own society small, and does not often appear in court. All Damen really knows of him is that he owns some lands and forts of no consequence, and that the letters that come from him are very short, and to the point. They’re usually about border patrols and acquisitions and budgets for Delpha.

Damen is not really interested in the second Prince though. He spies Lady Vannes’ party, the lady herself sitting. She has Laurent on her right though, his face painted fully with a pattern like golden lace, that goes all the way down his neck. His back too, what is exposed, Damen would wager.

“It’s said she won’t marry, so I suppose her and the Prince are good company,” the man, Gerard. says to Damen, seeing where he’s looking. “She has a niece. Her sister died some years back, and her niece has been like her daughter ever since.”

“The girl had no father?” From Gerard’s face, it’s best Damen doesn’t press the subject.

“So you and her have something in common,” Gerard says. “I saw your nephew earlier. He seems quite devoted to you.”

“And I to him,” Damen replies. “Though I’m not sure I could manage him without his nurses here. He has a habit of wandering.” Most often into Damen’s rooms when he’s had a bad dream, or says he has. Damen doubts it’s true most nights, since Polyxena’s bedroom is connected to Babis’ nursery.

“Most children do,” Gerard says, and places a hand on Damen’s arm. Damen looks back at him, and sees the intent. And he is good-looking enough, Damen thinks, but his own heart’s not in it. “Is it true, that you have said you will not take a wife?”

“I have not taken one yet,” Damen says. “Between Babis and my duties, I do not believe I will ever have the time.”

“No time for a wife,” Gerard muses, tightening his hand. “That I can understand. You seem to have some time to yourself now, though.”

From over where the Lady Vannes is sitting, he hears a laugh, and he looks back again to see her pet giggling, her hand over her mouth, while the lady looks at Laurent with something like mockery in her face. Laurent has stiffened, his mouth tight, visible even through the paint.

“Excuse me,” Damen says to Gerard, and steps away, making for their party. Vannes’ pet is still laughing, and she seems to start again when she sees Damen in front of them. Vannes only looks amused now, fanning herself, her eyebrows raised at Damen.

“Is there something I can help you with, Your Highness?” she asks.

Laurent is still stiff, looking at Damen too, cool and disinterested again. So Damen has to hope for the best, when he asks, “I wonder if I might have the favor of Laurent’s company.”

Laurent’s expression does not change in the slightest, but Vannes somehow looks even more amused. “Far be it from me to deny our ally such a small favor,” she says, tapping Laurent’s shoulder with her closed fan. “Be a dear and keep His Royal Highness company.” Obediently, Laurent stands, and joins Damen now.

After he has thanked her, and they have left her earshot, Damen says, “You do not have to. I won’t mind if you just want to go back to your rooms.”

“Oh? Do you plan on accompanying me?” Laurent sounds tired, not really upset, and there’s no heat in the remark. There’s emotion, at least. “What I want is to wash this paint off my face and be out of this room.”

Up close, the paint is intricate. Someone must have spent a long time doing it, but Damen will not be sorry to see it gone. He leads them towards the doors, Laurent following, likely for no other reason than because he won't argue with escape, and they duck into the halls, where there are only servants and slaves waiting. Some have bowls of water, but it is for washing hands.

Damen does not wish to take any of them away from their posts, not when they might face trouble for it later, depending on who they serve, so he leads Laurent further, until Laurent seems to know where they are going. It feels a bit like when Damen was young, and he would sneak around the palace at home in Ios, going off with the boys he was trained with to venture into the city. At least here, he does not think he will be hauled off by a frantic guard like a sack of goods to be set in front of a stern-faced Hypermenestra.

The baths are empty at this time of night, except for two attendants setting things out. They do as bidded, and come back with a bowl of water, soap, and rags for Laurent, one holding a mirror for him as he takes the paint off. Damen allows him his privacy, sitting on the edge of the empty soaking pool.

His face is very pink, when he touches Damen’s shoulder to get his attention. It’s endearing, to see him this way.

“I want to go outside,” Laurent says.

“Would you like it if I walked with you?”

“I would not dislike it,” Laurent says, which is the best Damen thinks he’ll get, so he finds his feet.

It’s gone cloudy outside, the air thick with the smell of rain. It has not started yet though, but it is very dark as they walk. Still, the path is visible, and if they get lost, they get lost. Damen could think of no one else he would like to be lost in a garden with.

They do not speak, but Damen doesn’t mind. Laurent’s become easier to be with, now that they’ve met a few times.

“You did not find your previous company pleasing enough?” It takes a moment for Damen to grasp who he means, before he remembers Gerard. “Lady Vannes thought you seemed quite interested in your conversation.”

Damen doesn’t know why she would think that, or why Laurent would care. He wonders though, and decides to test it. “Did I seem interested?”

“I was not paying you any attention,” Laurent says, pulling his outer layer up around himself from where it’s started to slip. “That said, I would think a merchant from nowhere was beneath your notice as well.” He’s a few steps ahead of Damen now, so Damen cannot see his face, but there’s a certain snideness in his voice that betrays him.

“And who do you think is worth my notice?” Damen asks. He can’t deny he’s pleased Laurent feels some kind of jealousy over Damen’s attention. “Do you have someone in mind?”

As he walks, Laurent is pulling the pins out of his hair, until his braid falls free to hang down his back. His hair is not very long, but long enough. Damen thinks about how it would look wrapped around his hand. There is still paint on the back of his neck, and Damen can see how the pattern continues down his back. It would smear if Damen touched it. Would come off on the sheets, if he was in Damen’s bed.

That is not a thought he can linger over now. “Why do you wear all that?” he asks. “You do not need paint to make you beautiful.” It’s very Veretian, he thinks, to cover true beauty with gaudy ornamentation. “It does not suit you.”

Laurent stops and turns, Damen almost stumbling to keep himself from running into him. He missed some of the gold on his jaw. “And of course, yours is the only opinion that matters on what suits me?”

That is not what Damen meant, and he doesn’t understand why Laurent appears offended now. “You are easily the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen,” Damen says. “I don’t understand why anyone would think you should be hidden behind this.” He reaches up, using the edge of his chlamys over his thumb to get the stray paint off of Laurent’s face. It’s a mistake; Laurent freezes in place, eyes widening, so Damen quickly drops his hand and takes a step back. “I’m sorry.”

There’s a breath, the two of them looking at one another, Laurent’s eyes sharpening. “No you’re not,” Laurent spits.

Damen shouldn’t have done that, but he doesn’t think it warrants the amount of poison in Laurent’s voice. He remembers the way Laurent sat so stiffly by Lady Vannes’ side, and he wonders if he’s being punished for someone else’s crimes. “Do not take your annoyances out on me,” Damen says. “I will not stand here and take it.”

Just like that, Laurent’s entire posture changes. He draws back, his form almost supine, and smiles, with no warmth. Sickly sweet, he says, “No, that’s what you’d like me to do.” Still sweet, he asks, “Am I not the most beautiful man you’ve ever seen?”

Damen’s temper flares at his words being thrown back at him in such a way. “Are you trying to accuse me of something? What? That you are beautiful? That I desire you? You’ve always known both of those things, and you’ve said so. Why does it offend you now?”

His posture changes again, the performance done. Now he is only Laurent once more, an arm over his middle, resentfully saying, “I have been told of my beauty since I was thirteen. If you think I take pleasure in it, you are very much mistaken.”

Thirteen is very young to be told such a thing. But Laurent said he was thirteen at Marlas, when his father died. Just him and his brother left, their mother already gone. Survival at any cost would have been their only goal, and there was Laurent, thirteen and being told he was beautiful. And now Damen sees why Laurent would not find it a compliment.

Laurent has already turned from him again, and begun to walk away, further into the gardens, when Damen finds his tongue. “If I only liked you for your beauty, I would not seek you out again,” he says to Laurent’s back. And it’s true. Damen would have been attracted to him, but he would have easily forgotten him. A pretty flower amongst many more. “But you are clever, and sharp. I enjoy that more than any kind of beauty.”

“You didn’t seem to enjoy it a moment ago.” But Laurent slows, allowing Damen to catch up with him.

“Because you seemed determined to make me angry, and I don’t know why.” He remembers something Laurent said before, about merely wanting to see if he could rile Damen up. This does not seem the same though. “If you don’t want me here, say so, and I will leave you alone.”

He waits, but Laurent says nothing of the sort. “You are not what I expected. I don’t like being surprised.”

“You were expecting something of me? What, do you spend your idle time thinking of the court in Ios, of savage barbarians and wanton displays?”

“No, that last part would be Arles,” Laurent says, and Damen smiles. “The fashion of your capital city seems wanton enough to make up for it.”

“If you attempted to wear your Veretian fashions in Ios, you would soon regret it,” Damen reminds him. “It cannot be healthy to spend your days laced up so tight you cannot breathe.”

“Attempt your Akielon fashions in Vere during the winter, and see how quickly you change your mind,” Laurent replies. “Though it is not much better here. I thought this was supposed to be their summer.” He draws his other arm around himself, frowning.

It is chilled out here, the coming storm stealing away all the warmth. “You would like Ios,” Damen says, and tries not to imagine how Laurent would look, stretched out in Damen’s bed, the sun from the balcony on his skin. The image will not be banished though, not with Laurent beside him. “You would be warm there.” He would be warm under Damen’s hands, would rise to meet him. Or would chastise him for disturbing Laurent. Perhaps both. He would like it if it were both.

They’re very far into the gardens now, and again, it’s only them. None of Laurent’s guards have followed, as Damen thought they might when the two of them left the room. “Don’t your guards worry?”

“About what?” Laurent asks, falsely innocent. “Me being alone with you?”

“I would not want there to be any trouble for you.”

Laurent smirks, and shrugs, an exaggerated show of nonchalance. “My guards will think what I tell them to think. They are loyal to me.” If Laurent believes that, Damen will too, but he’s still not sure. “And it was supposed to be Lazar’s turn tonight. Jord and Orlant are playing dice.”

“And where is Lazar?”

“Where do you think?” In Pallas’ arms, if Damen had to guess, which means even if Laurent is wrong about their loyalty, he’s safe. Lazar will not tell, and risk losing his own position or worse punishment.

Damen is thinking to say something about that, when rain hits his shoulder. No sooner has he looked up, then the sky opens over them. There’s no shelter immediately apparent, until Laurent grabs him by the arm and pulls him towards the wall, into one of the alcoves. They hardly fit beneath it, the space not designed to shelter two people, and not one of Damen’s size.

But his clothes will be fine, and Laurent’s might not, so Damen herds him against the wall, so he’s further away. “Do you want to try to get back?” he asks, not sure he likes the idea himself. They’ll both be soaked through by the time they reach the castle again, and Damen is not in the mood to catch a chill. It would make him a poor guest, he thinks.

“We can wait it out,” Laurent offers, looking as though he’s thinking the same thing as Damen. His clothes are already very wet, and Damen turns his eyes up to focus on a brick. They’re forced very close in the space, but not so close they’re touching. He can feel Laurent’s breathing though, hear it, even over the rain. And Laurent must be able to feel Damen too, hear how he’s trying to control himself, because he drawls, “If you think you can manage it.”

“Don’t be cruel,” Damen grouses.

Laurent makes a huffing noise, then reaches out and taps the clasp holding Damen’s chlamys in place. “Is this meant to be a lion?” Admittedly, the design has been worn down through use. Damen cannot even remember where it came from. It might have been one of his father’s. “Akielons do like them, don’t you? It’s the emblem of your family.”

“And what would you be?” Damen asks, thinking of Laurent, cool and slippery, beautiful and vicious. “A viper?”

For some reason, that causes Laurent to start, eyes burning into Damen until he’s forced to meet them. “Why would you say that?” he asks, curious, but in a manner that sounds almost dangerous.

“It was the first thing that came to mind,” Damen admits, confused. Whatever insult he unintentionally gave, his answer seems to soothe it, Laurent again looking at the pin. He tugs on it, not enough to loosen the chlamys, but enough Damen says, “Stop that. I don’t want my back soaked too.”

“I would have thought Akielons would see rain as merely another chance to bathe, considering you already walk around nude.”

“Not when the rain is cold,” Damen argues. He has used rain as an impromptu bath before, but that was during the summers in Akielos, when it was hot, and the rain was a relief from it. “I’m surprised Veretians need to bathe at all, as your skin never touches the air, much less dirt.”

Laurent blinks at him, languid. “I am not dressed as a Veretian.”

No, he is not. The Patran silks he is wearing are clinging to him, the tops of them transparent where they’re stuck to his skin. His face is wet too, his loose hair darker, a lock of it stuck to his neck. The silence goes on too long, as Damen looks at him, and grows heavier by the moment.

“You could kiss me now, and no one would know,” Laurent offers, tone flat again, but there’s a smile teasing at the corner of his mouth. He’s having fun with Damen.

“But I will not,” Damen says. He cannot. Laurent cannot really offer him anything. “You are contracted, and you are not free.” Somehow he has moved closer to Laurent, trying to get out of the rain some more maybe. Maybe. They are almost touching. He’s so close he can count Laurent’s lashes, see how they’re clumped together from the water.

Laurent seems to consider his words, then says slowly, as though Damen is stupid, “We are not in Vere.”

That is not how contracts work, and Damen knows it. He does, but it’s so hard to remember when Laurent is this close, and looking up at Damen like he’s challenging him. So hard, to not look down at Laurent’s mouth. He has a very soft mouth, in contrast to his sharp tongue.

It’s Laurent who reaches up, and Damen doesn’t miss the way his hand shakes when he pushes Damen’s wet curls back. “Kiss me,” Laurent directs.

Carefully, Damen grabs his arm, where his hand is still in Damen’s hair, and pulls it away. He’s trembling in Damen’s hold, whether from the chill or nerves, Damen cannot tell. Both. There is a voice in his head warning him against what he does next, but he does it anyway, pressing his lips against the inside of Laurent’s wrist, over his pulse.

There’s a catch in his voice when he tells Damen, “That is not what I meant,” but he sounds irritated too.

Damen knows that is not what he meant and still that voice in his head tells him to stop. But he does not, instead sliding his other hand around Laurent’s waist to rest on the small of his back as he ducks down, kissing Laurent’s shoulder next, the skin smooth and damp under his lips. He tries to steady Laurent with his hand, releasing his wrist, and instead cupping the back of his head, so he can kiss Laurent’s neck.

He can feel his pulse here too, feel how it’s thudding. More telling is the sound Laurent makes, a surprised exhale, his fingers finding purchase in Damen’s shoulder, his other hand iron tight on the arm Damen has around his waist. Damen lingers in the moment, exhilarated by this reaction to such a small thing. Laurent’s, and his own.

But then he draws back, tilting Laurent’s head and kissing him. Laurent’s fingers almost hurt, they’re holding Damen so fiercely, but he doesn’t mind. Laurent kisses him back slowly, and just as slowly, his grip loosens. It does not matter, they’re pressed so tight together there’s no way to pull one another closer.

He’s kissed a hundred lovers, but it never felt quite like this, the way Laurent feels in his arms, kissing Damen back. One of his hands slips around Damen’s neck, and he tugs them both further into the alcove, Damen’s hand between Laurent’s back and the wall. He drops it, finds Laurent’s hip, feeling the bone there. Goes lower, squeezing Laurent’s thigh, and that earns him another sound, Laurent almost dropping away from him when he gasps. Damen follows him though, kissing him again, and uses both hands to grab at Laurent tighter, almost pushing him up off his toes.

Damen’s want is suddenly like fire, burning through him now that he’s released it, and he cannot think of anything but touching Laurent more, kissing him. The rain is still very loud at his back, but Laurent’s breath is in his ear, louder, as Damen goes back to his neck, relishing every sound he gets from Laurent for it, the way he holds on to Damen.

He is so easy in Damen’s arms, it feels as though it would be nothing to lift him up against the wall, to take their pleasure here and now.

That is not what he wants though, in the back of his mind. His true desires. Laurent is not a common whore, content to be fucked quickly for coin and thanked for his time. He is sharp and bright, and still shaking against Damen. So Damen settles himself, releases him. Does not stop kissing him, but gentles it, his hands moving to Laurent’s waist, then to cup Laurent’s face, resting their temples together.

Laurent blinks, eyes dark, quiet against Damen. Damen kisses him again, soft and chaste, but still, Laurent says nothing. His hands slide down, to rest against Damen’s chest, and he half-thinks Laurent will use the leverage to shove him away. But he does not.

“Was that what you meant?” Damen asks.

“That was the idea,” Laurent replies, blinking again, then licking his lips.

He seems a bit dazed, but Damen is too. He was not expecting a kiss to be so overwhelming, and neither was Laurent it seems. They are together in this, Laurent making no effort to escape Damen, staying still in his arms. That too feels like much more than it should, Damen’s whole chest thrumming from the thrill of it.

They are both still soaked though, and as the rain tapers off, a lull in the storm that is likely to last all night, he realizes he can feel Laurent shivering. “We should go back in while we can,” Damen says. “You need to get out of these clothes.”

“That is not how I expected to hear you say that,” Laurent says, with an attempt at snideness that is betrayed by the way he is still holding himself close to Damen. “But yes, we need to go now.”

They do not speak on the way out, Laurent leading them. Damen wonders if he has completely memorized the paths, or if he just has the instinct for direction. Before they step out though, and put themselves in sight of the palace, Damen takes Laurent’s hand and raises it to his mouth.

“I will not do that again, if you do not want me to,” he promises. “But I’m very happy I got a chance to. You are truly singular, Laurent.” He would not say beautiful to Laurent, not at this moment, and not now that he knows Laurent’s distaste for it. He is much more than his face anyway.

Laurent looks at him, and Damen cannot read his expression, the emotion there too carefully hidden. But it is not boredom, or fear. It’s something else, something that he hopes Laurent sees reflected in Damen. Something that causes a true smile on Laurent’s face, and a softness in his voice when he says, “We’re getting rained on.”

Inside, they meet Orlant, leaning against a wall and humming a tune to himself. He sees them, and pushes off, standing at attention, inclining his head to Laurent, and then Damen.

“I thought you were playing dice,” Damen hears Laurent drawl, as he walks away.

“And I thought you were in bed, but here we are,” Orlant quips. “Oi, you look like you fell in the river. Let’s get you cleaned up before Jord sees you and starts fussing, the damned broody hen.”

It reassures Damen that even if Orlant suspects something is amiss, he is not going to chastise Laurent or report him, so Damen leaves them.

What would he even do, if he feared such a thing? Take Laurent back to his own rooms? It would be considered a serious breach of trust with Arles, and Vere as a whole, if the Akielon Prince took a contracted pet for himself. Damen cannot risk such a thing, and he knows it well. The treaty has held, and in very little time, Damen is bound for Vere to sign the renewal in his father’s place.

Maybe he could offer to buy out Laurent’s contract. There is no reason why it would not be possible, if Laurent was agreeable to it. If Laurent was agreeable to it.

He’s thinking too far ahead, rushing through a plan he does not need, and Laurent likely does not want. Vere is his home, and where his brother is. And Laurent is not the sort of man led by his heart. He would not put himself at risk to run away to Ios with Damen, and Damen would be a fool to ask it of him.

At his door, the guards on duty respectfully acknowledge him, and hold the door open for him. The servants have gone to bed though, even his personal attendant. Getting out of his wet clothes is easy enough, and Damen hangs them on the drying rack near the fire.

Naked, he climbs into the bed, grateful for the warming pan his attendant thought to place. It would be warmer with another body beside him. The body he imagines is of course Laurent’s, his ideas now helped along by the fact he knows the way Laurent would feel against him, has already learned a soft spot. He thinks of that, of Laurent’s back pressed to his chest, the both of them still damp, but safe under the covers, keeping one another warm. He could keep Laurent pressed to him, a hand over Laurent’s stomach, his mouth on Laurent’s neck, coaxing more of those sighs out of him as Damen thrust inside of him. Could ask Laurent to touch himself so Damen might watch over his shoulder, could whisper encouragement in Laurent’s ear. He wouldn’t like it, Damen thinks, would snarl that he knew what he was doing, and he did not need instruction, but he would be flushed again. Damen would be able to feel the heat of it in his skin against his own cheek.

If he was Damen’s, and Damen’s alone, he could bite Laurent’s shoulder, nip at that perfect porcelain skin and leave a mark that all might see. Would Laurent allow him that? Call him a savage Akielon, but press into him anyway, force Damen deeper within him to impatiently take his own pleasure? Would he command Damen to touch him? Damen would, would do anything Laurent asked of him if it meant he could feel Laurent spill from Damen’s attentions alone.

Thinking of him like that, Damen finishes himself into the sheets, then moves to the other side of the bed.

He wonders if Laurent thought of him tonight.

The next morning is the wedding ceremony, and there’s a lot of servants dashing about, and a lot of shouting going on. Damen takes breakfast with Babis alone in his room instead of attending the one in the great hall, and then they spend an hour or so on Babis’ lessons with his nurse. Babis’ handwriting is still shaky, but he is determined, the chalk gripped in his fist as he writes on his slate. Damen watches him, thinking of nothing in particular, humming in approval when Babis shows him and the nurse his work.

“Why is everyone yelling?” he asks Damen, after they venture out, Damen deciding he could use some exercise before he starts on his numbers. He is a good child, but as prone to boredom and restlessness as any small child when kept in one place for too long.

Damen idly watches a set of servants go by carrying flowers, keeping Babis out of their way. “Weddings are a lot of work,” he says, as though he would know anything about Patran weddings.

He’s surprised to see Jord come up to them, standing to the side as well when a flurry of hall boys carrying baskets full of linens come through. Once they’ve passed, he comes to a stop in front of Damen and Babis, standing at attention and pressing his right fist over his chest respectfully until Damen nods, and he moves to an at ease.

“Your Royal Highness,” he says to Damen, and then nods to Babis. “Your Highness.”

“Yes?” Damen prompts, at a loss as to what Jord would want with him. Unless Laurent has been found out?

But Jord pulls a note from his belt, folded and sealed. “I have been asked to give this to you.” The wax seal is plain, but when Damen slides it open, using the knife at his belt to do it, he finds he knows the handwriting, though he’s never seen Laurent’s handwriting. It’s fine, full of flourish, the letters so close together they almost loop into one another.

I would like it if you came to walk with me at the tenth bell, it reads. I want to revisit the topic on which we spoke of. I am not yet satisfied by your answer.

Damen cannot help his smile, the way his whole chest sings with it. He had wondered if Laurent would regret it in the morning, and he had known there would be nothing he could do or say to argue with it. The risk is great, and it will be Laurent who pays for it if they are found out. Damen is not sorry though. Laurent believes he is worth the cost.

In front of them, Jord is waiting, but Babis has apparently taken notice of him. He comes forward and pokes at Jord’s scabbard, Jord almost jerking away, but restraining himself. “How come there are flowers?”

“They are lilies,” Jord answers hesitantly. “It’s a very important symbol in Vere.”

“Are you important?” Babis asks, before Damen can stop him. He is used to the soldiers of Akielos, who are happy to answer any question Babis might have.

Damen attempts to rein him in, saying, “Babis, don’t be rude.”

However Jord, whether out of surprise, or because he is trained to answer when royalty, even very small royalty, asks him a question, says, “In my way. This was a gift.” When Babis continues to stare up at him, face scrunched in puzzlement, Jord looks first to Damen, as though he thinks he must ask permission, then back to Babis. “In Vere, when a guard rises to a certain rank, it is traditional for his father to gift him a scabbard. But my father died when I was very young. This was given to me by a friend. A friend, who did not want me to be lacking.”

“He must be your very good friend,” Babis replies, still touching the scabbard.

Again, Jord looks to Damen, this time in a more significant way, when he says, “Yes. A very good friend.” He means Laurent, Damen realizes. And yes, that was a kind thing to do. “Do I have an answer to bring back, sir?”

Damen thinks he is trying to let Damen know that his loyalty is indeed to Laurent, first and foremost. And Damen remembers the ease of the two of them before, how Jord had treated Laurent. There is also a reason that Laurent would have trusted this note to Jord. So he says, “Tell him I will be happy to do as he asks.”

He receives a nod from Jord, and then the man leaves them, continuing on his way.

Once he is gone, Damen cannot hide his own joy, swooping down and picking Babis up to settle him on his hip. “Let’s get you back to your lessons. Your grandmother will be very cross with me if you fall behind.”

“YaYa says I’m already very smart,” Babis argues, but holds on to Damen agreeably.

There is indeed a wedding that evening, and Damen thinks he smiles and claps in all the right places. He mostly follows along with what everyone else is doing. It’s a long ceremony, with much kneeling for various blessings, and a speech from Torgeir that Damen doesn’t really remember. He assumes it is the usual things a King says at a royal wedding.

Every Veretian catches his eye, but though there are few of them, none are Laurent. The pets are all masked tonight, but Damen would know Laurent’s form. Lady Vannes is holding court in one part of the room, the other Veretian nobles here gathered around her. She is the only one who is a member of the court at Arles, and so these ones all seek her favor, and she’s clearly enjoying it.

He does not see Laurent even once, though he looks. Still, he makes conversation, and tries to be as pleasant as possible, until the bells strike nine. Then he only has a little time to kill, before he makes his excuses.

His guards are displeased when he tells them to find something to do with themselves.

“Exalted, this cannot be wise,” Atkis says. “You should not be wandering about without us so often.”

“This is Patras,” Damen reminds him. “And they do not want to go to war with Akielos and Vere both.” Because that is what would happen. An open offense against Akielos would have Vere up in arms. Vere has become their most profitable trading partner, and Auguste is both a practical man and an honorable one. He would stand with Damen’s father. “Go stand guard at Babis’ bedroom if you’re so worried about our future.”

Atkis does not go though, even after the others do. Looking torn, says what he intends to say, anyway. “The Veretian pet is beautiful, Exalted. There is no denying that. But I only worry that this might be some sort of Veretian trick.”

Damen has never punished a guard for speaking honestly, and he’s not about to start. But the accusation still angers him. “Thank you, Atkis,” he says, and sees Atkis flinch at his tone. “Now, I have dismissed you.” He does not look happy about it, but he bows to Damen and does as he’s told.

Then Damen is free to slip away, to the garden entrance. And there he finds Laurent, waiting beyond the hedges.

Like the others in Vannes’ retinue, he is dressed in layers of blues tonight, trimmed in gold, with the jewelry to match. There is a mask as well, made of dried flowers painted in dark blue, sitting on the stones of the fountain. Damen, for lack of words, picks it up, and holds it to Laurent’s face. “And where were you?” he asks.

“Attending to my duties,” Laurent answers, and pushes the mask away.

After a moment, he looks away from Damen, but there is a true smile fighting at the corners of his mouth, matching Damen’s own. It makes his heart sing again to see it. “I was very happy to get your note.”

“I’m sure,” Laurent says, and turns from him, beginning down the path.

Damen admires his form, the sheer silk covering his back, and the golden chain hanging down it. This time, when Damen follows, he touches it again, following it up to the nape of Laurent’s neck, where it joins the necklace he is wearing.

Laurent scoffs, and says over his shoulder, “You scold your nephew for tugging on my clothes, but look where he learned it from.” Damen thinks tugging is an exaggeration, but he releases it, and comes to keep pace with Laurent. “Does he often see you tugging at people’s clothing?”

He’s not sure how to answer. But he does not get a chance to consider it, as Laurent begins to hum, and then, under his breath, sings a lyric that Damen knows very well. His face flushes with heat, as he demands, “Where did you hear that?”

“Oh, Pallas thought to share some Akielon ballads with Lazar,” Laurent replies loftily. “Or maybe he was insulted by something Lazar said about his beloved Crown Prince, and he thought to educate him.”

Now Damen has the idea of it, and he is going to kill Pallas. It had been embarrassing enough the first time the damn thing was sung. In the hall of Ios. With his father and Hypermenestra present. His father had laughed uproariously but Hypermenestra had only given Damen a very stern look the whole time.

“Six hours,” Laurent comments. “No wonder he wrote a ballad about you.”

“I will have Pallas put on the sea wall,” Damen mutters. It’s a terrible posting, too cold and wet for anyone to suffer for long, but if Damen has his way, Pallas will spend the entire winter there.

Laurent looks at him, eyes lit up. “Don’t you like hearing about your accomplishments?” He leans forward as they walk, trying to force Damen to meet his gaze. “Are you shy?”

“We do not speak of these things so blatantly in Akielos,” Damen manages.

“What things? Sex?” Him saying it so easily stirs Damen up in a new way, and Laurent notices, continuing, “How strange. How do you go about securing your many storied partners then, Your Highness?”

That’s a dare, Damen knows it. He looks around, makes sure they really are alone before he reaches out and stops Laurent with a hand on his waist, drawing him closer to Damen. He comes easily, looking up at Damen like he’s waiting. When he has Laurent there, right where he wants him, Damen reaches up, and pushes a few stray curls back behind Laurent’s ear, letting his fingers linger and then following the column of his neck, feeling his pulse. Giving Laurent a chance to move away first, he ducks down, and presses his mouth first against the spot just below Laurent’s ear, and then down to the crook of his neck, feeling how Laurent shudders, just a little, at every kiss.

One of Laurent’s hands is gripped tight in his chlamys by the time Damen stops, his mouth open when Damen raises his face to press a kiss against Laurent’s jaw. “I ask,” he says, against Laurent’s skin. “There’s no trick to it.”

He knows he’s won this little game when Laurent does not immediately respond.

Much as Damen would like to continue, this is not the place. They are alone now, but they could be easily stumbled upon, so Damen steps back, pleased when Laurent keeps pace with him. It gives him enough of his confidence back to say, “It was seven hours.”

Beside him, he hears Laurent sniff disdainfully. “I thought six hours was a gross exaggeration; do you really expect me to believe seven?”

“Would you like to see proof?”

“And where did that modesty go?” Laurent asks the air, taking a turn down a path that seems a little familiar. When he sees the fountain, the swan with its wings outstretched, he remembers.

Laurent sits on the edge of the fountain again, and Damen sits beside him, admiring him again. He might not enjoy being told he is beautiful, and Damen might like him more for the clever mind working in that head than anything else, but Damen cannot deny that he likes to look at Laurent too.

And he would like to continue their conversation from last night, but Laurent has given him no invitation beyond that first tease. He would like to know what Laurent is thinking anyway. “That song is not that interesting. What else is on your mind?”

“Many things,” Laurent answers. “I am always thinking of many things, though.” That, Damen believes. “I suppose I’m mostly thinking about you.” The way he says it does not sound as though he’s been thinking of Damen in the same way Damen has been thinking of him, so Damen settles forward, elbows on knees, and raises his eyebrows at Laurent. Laurent takes the hint, and elaborates. “You mean it, when you say there will be no slaves in Akielos when you are king? Why?”

That’s an entirely unexpected question, and Damen gathers his thoughts so he can say what he means to say. There is little point in lying to Laurent, he suspects, and Damen never had a talent for it. “Before Kastor faced King Auguste, he was angry. I think it was why he…” Why he behaved so dishonorably, when offered mercy. Why he rode out there in the first place. “He had a favored slave girl. Polyxena. He had brought her as his personal attendant. And she…”

“She had fallen pregnant with your nephew,” Laurent says aloud, and Damen nods.

“Kastor told our father and me. Our father was not pleased. He said something he should not have. And Kastor said some things he should not have. But what my father said was worse.” Laurent does not prompt him or finish his thought for him, so Damen is forced to say it. “My father said it was better to cut the baby from her belly then, than have a slave bear a Prince’s child.” Even then, Damen had not believed his father truly meant it, but saying it had been bad enough.

And what had Damen done, when Kastor had looked to him, to Damen, with that fierce anger, expecting Damen to stay by his side, like Damen had always done for as long as he could remember? Always following after his older brother, who never had time for him. The one time his brother had wanted him there, had needed him. And what had Damen done?

“I said that a slave girl could not bear his child.” He will never not feel shame for the memory. But he deserves to bear it. “I had never gone against our father before. But I wish I had.” The past is written in stone though. “And then he was dead. And all that was left of him was growing in a woman my father did not believe deserved the honor. How could I look at her, at Babis, and see them as lesser than myself? She had Kastor’s child. All that is left of my brother was given life by her.” Polyxena had been so afraid when she had been brought to Damen’s tent, tears running down her face freely. She had thought he was going to kill her. Instead, Damen had the shackles removed from her wrists and neck. “And then after, it was as if all of them were her, and all the children were Babis.”

Laurent has let him speak without interruption this whole time, and when Damen looks, Laurent is watching him, his chin resting on his hand. He truly has the bluest eyes Damen has ever seen. Or maybe it is only that there is so much going on in Laurent, they seem brighter for it.

“There will be no more slaves in Akielos,” Damen says again, with all the conviction he had the first time when he had announced it to his father and the kyroi. “It took some convincing, and many negotiations and promises. But Akielos is done with the practice.”

“And what will become of the ones still enslaved?”

“That is why I could not end it outright.” This is not what Damen thought they would be talking about, and he feels clumsy explaining it. He wishes he’d had time to think about it. “I did not want anyone to starve. And everything would have collapsed. So first, children could not be slaves, but they were to stay in their households. Then, the slave markets were ended. There will be no more new slaves. Now, we are in transition. It has not always been easy, but it is working.”

He does not know what to think of the way Laurent is studying him. There is no judgement in his face, nor is there happiness. He is only looking at Damen. “You are not what I expected,” he says again. “When His Majesty has described you, he always said you were very honorable, and I never knew if I should believe it or not. He is an amiable man, and he believes the best in everyone until they force him to see otherwise.”

“So you do have the King’s ear, then?” Damen asks, again.

“The King listens to good advice,” Laurent says. “That is all. He has no interest in men, if that’s where this is leading.” Damen did wonder, but he can’t imagine the King would send his own pet away. Besides, it’s long been known in Akielos that the King has never taken a pet or even a lover. Mostly, it’s been known as a joke, that perhaps Auguste does not know what to do with either.

“It wasn’t leading anywhere,” Damen says, glad for the change in topic. “I’d just like to know as much about you as you’ll tell me.” He would, in a way he’s never cared to know a lover before. Men and women he took to bed before were usually friends, people he knew well enough to be comfortable with, but neither he nor them had wanted anything more intimate. “You said you liked to read. What do you read?”

Laurent starts, and Damen thinks he’s surprised him again. He answers, looking away from Damen when he does, playing with the hem of his sleeve. “When I was younger, I enjoyed the ballads and poems. As I got older, it was more important to focus on law, and other studies. That is usually what I dedicate myself to.”

“But you still like the ballads, the poems,” Damen says, thinking of the library in Ios, a thousand stories Laurent has never read. “When I was growing up, my favorite stories were the Trials of Themistocles. I used to make my nurse tell them over and over. I loved them.”

The softness from last night has reappeared in Laurent’s face, and the way it changes him from untouchable statue to flesh-and-blood makes Damen ache. “My favorites were the stories of Celestine, the Queen of the Sky. My mother never understood why I liked them so much. There’s one where she tricks a young girl into climbing a rainbow, and another where she curses a woman to wear shoes that never let her stop dancing, until they turn red from her blood.”

“Why would she do that?”

“The woman threw boiling water on her stepdaughter because she was more beautiful than her own daughter,” Laurent explains.

“Fair enough,” Damen says. “You read about law, though? Why?”

Laurent plays with his hem again, letting it fall with a flourish. “You are so eager to find out my true purpose to my patron. It’s very obvious.”

“I was not trying to hide it,” Damen says. “Why do you always assume I’m trying to be clever, or something? I know I’m not. Not that way.” He dares to reach over, and let Laurent’s braid slip through his fingers. “When I was very young, I used to always try to lie to Hypermenestra when I’d done something I was not supposed to. And do you know, she would look down at me, and she would ask, ‘would you like to try another before I get the truth?’”

“I don’t think she was looking down at you for long,” Laurent says, eyeing Damen up and down. “You are abnormally big.”

He’s not saying anything about Damen still playing with his braid, so Damen moves closer, surprised by the thrill of it. He has done this before; there is nothing new here. There is certainly nothing new about this for Laurent. But somehow this delicate balance they have feels like embarking down a path Damen has never been on.

Laurent’s braid slides through his fingers like silk, and Damen leans over, presses his mouth against it. There is no perfume in it, no scent at all. “You do not like to wear scent?”

“Do I need it?” Since he does not tell Damen to stop, Damen kisses his shoulder next.

“No,” Damen answers. His skin is very pale, but when Damen moves the fabric aside, he sees the pink there, from where Laurent’s been in the sun too long. He kisses there too, and Laurent makes a sound, bats at him. “What?”

“It stings,” Laurent says, again back to that tone as though Damen is stupid. “And it’s your fault. You were the one who dragged me down by the water.”

“How is that my fault?” When he turns his eyes up, Laurent is very close to him. His eyes flick down to Damen’s mouth, so Damen takes that as encouragement, and kisses him again. This too feels exciting, though it should not. It is though, it is exciting to cup Laurent’s jaw and kiss him. Exciting to be allowed this, the way Laurent kisses him back so sweetly.

He turns when Damen prompts him with a hand on his waist, and rests his own hands against Damen’s chest. Laurent is something of a contradiction in this; unbelievably bold when he’s speaking, but now he’s almost shy. This is not his purpose though, and Damen wonders when was the last time Laurent was able to kiss someone.

They could just do this for the rest of the night, Damen thinks and takes one of Laurent’s hands in his, moving to kiss his palm, then down over his pulse again. There are calluses, gone smooth with age, on his palms and fingers, and it’s somehow delightful to find a flaw in him. “You do not always wear gloves when you ride,” Damen chastises.

“You don’t wear any at all,” Laurent says, but like last night, he’s gone a bit breathless. Just from a kiss, Damen thinks, and is delighted all over again, swooping in to kiss his mouth again. Laurent laughs, still breathless, and secures his fingers in Damen’s chiton. “Though I suppose I should -” he lets Damen interrupt him with another kiss, “I should be surprised you even saddle your horses.”

“You’re thinking of the Vaskian mountain clans,” Damen says.

“Because you’ve met so many clan raiders,” Laurent says.

“Regularly,” Damen tells him.

“Why?”

Because he can, Damen takes both of Laurent’s hands in his, and bows his head to kiss them. “The mountain clans are not like us. Akielos, Vere, Patras. They do not believe in borders, or in loyalties to anyone but their clans, the women they ride with. So there are no treaties to be struck with them.” He had found this out years ago, and the solution to the problem of their raids too. “They do like horses though, and willing men, when they have need of them.”

“And when is that?”

“When they want children.” A smile works its way across Laurent’s face, surprised and disbelieving.

“So Akielos provides them with horses and studs, and they leave your border towns be?” That’s about the size of it, so Damen nods. “That’s actually very clever.”

“Not really,” Damen scoffs. “It just seemed easier than constantly having to have archers on the walls. Especially when their archers are usually better.” He stands up, the fountain too low for him to stay there comfortably much longer, and stretches. “It makes it easy to find volunteers for the borders too.” Damen thinks they draw lots every time the rotation comes up now. Atkis is usually groaning that he never gets to go.

Behind him, Laurent stands and joins him as Damen takes a turn around the courtyard. “Perhaps I should ask Orlant if he’d like to try border patrols,” Laurent muses aloud. “He fucks men because that’s what’s available in Vere, but I think if I gave him a chance at a woman, he’d swear fealty to me for the rest of his natural life.”

“Veretians are so strange,” Damen says. “Why do you care so much about bastards?”

“Why don’t Akielons?”

Damen shrugs. “Why does it matter how a child came about? How is it different just because the parents said some words in front of a priestess first?”

“Because it dilutes the bloodline,” Laurent says. “And don’t pretend Akielons don’t care at all. Your brother was older, but you were the heir.”

“Only because my mother was the queen. If I had been born of another lady at court, Kastor would have still been higher than me. But my mother outranked Hypermenestra, so I was higher. A mother’s bloodline is always the truest, so it holds more weight. Is it not the same in Vere?”

From the way Laurent is looking at him, he guesses not. “And if you sire a child? What will happen to Babis? His mother was a slave, everyone in your court must outrank her.”

It’s too far, and Damen turns to him. “Babis is my heir. Babis will be King after me. That is what I decided, and that is how it will be, no matter what happens.” Even if he does take a wife one day, whatever children he has will not be held above his nephew. “I gave my word on it.”

His tone seems to take Laurent aback. But then he draws himself up, a sly look on his face.

Ah, now Damen sees. “You were testing me.”

“I like him, is all. He’s a very sweet child. If you said anything different I would have placed him in my traveling trunk and taken him with me.” He says it lightly, clearly teasing now.

“He might climb in on his own,” Damen says. Babis has talked about Laurent often. “Are you always going to be testing me?”

“Do you mind?” Laurent takes a step, then another, until he’s right up against Damen, allowing Damen to encircle him in his arms. “You don’t seem to.”

He doesn’t, actually. Very few have ever spoken their minds so openly to him before, and never in the way Laurent does. Pushing at Damen the way he does. “I enjoy speaking with you.” Laurent is like a puzzle, and just when Damen thinks he’s found the image, the pieces reshape themselves entirely.

Laurent is truly singular, he thinks, in all the world. Who else would huff at him now and turn away, taking a turn around the garden. He pauses at the yarrow again, looking down at it. “Will you send yarrow to the Veretian King when he gets married?”

“I don’t wish him ill,” Damen says, thinking on it. “So yes. But people in Akielos have begun to say he will never marry.”

“Never say never,” Laurent says absent-mindedly. “Soon he will. And if all is well in twenty years, maybe one of his daughters will marry Babis. We were one kingdom once, you know. Vere and Akielos. I read it in the histories.”

“When we were Artes,” Damen says. “That was a long time ago. And we are very different people now.”

Laurent shrugs. “By then, there will be many children in Delfeur. And Akielons and Veretians will linger there, and they’ll fuck, and there will be more children. In twenty years time, we will be less different.” He’s right, because of course he is, but something in Damen balks a little at the idea. He’s not sure why. Maybe because Babis is a child who likes to stack rocks still, and Damen does not like the idea of planning out his whole life, or maybe he is too Akielon to think of Veretians and Akielons being one people again.

“You are so eager for Vere to disappear?” Damen asks.

He means it as a joke, but Laurent’s stance sharpens. “I am eager for this peace to hold. And there some parts of Vere I would be happy to see burn. Is there nothing in Akielos you wouldn’t like to see gone, someone you would like to see suffer through speaking Veretian, and laced up in our clothes, shivering in our winter?”

There are in fact several people Damen wouldn’t mind seeing like that. “And what will you do? Wear a chiton and burn in our sun?”

“Maybe I will even pray to your west wind,” Laurent mocks.

Though Damen does not really think a spirit will take offense, he reaches down and breaks off a sprig of the yarrow. He reaches out for Laurent’s braid again, and he looks over his shoulder at Damen, brow furrowed, but does not stop him as he places the flower at where the braid starts, working the stem in.

“And what is that for?”

“To keep you safe from your own impertinence,” Damen says, smiling, and raising the end of it so he can kiss Laurent’s hair again.

There is color rising in his face, not from the sun, and he looks away from Damen quickly, but Damen doesn’t miss the smile there. Damen places his hands on Laurent’s shoulders, comes up behind him more closely, Laurent’s back to his chest, and kisses the crown of his head now.

Under his hands, Laurent almost seems to be preening. “I’m impertinent?”

“You mock princes, you mock gods, I’m not sure what else to call you.” But he would rather give Laurent a true compliment right now anyway. “Bold. And opinionated.” He lets his hands trail down Laurent’s arms, enjoying this. Just being allowed to touch him feels like a revelation. “What would you say about me?”

Laurent hums, and the tune becomes apparent after only a moment, making Damen groan. “I’ve heard everyone else’s opinion of you. I haven’t decided what I think about you yet. I haven’t known you long enough.”

“How long do you have to know me?”

“Longer than this,” Laurent answers, then turns, looking up at Damen, face again a careful blank. And it is careful, Damen sees now. Practiced. It’s not that he feels nothing, it’s that he’s fighting to keep it all hidden. He would like it if Laurent did not feel he had to be that way with Damen, but maybe one day he will not. Maybe he will always look at Damen with that smile from before.

This one, this one on his face now when Damen kisses him. He’s still so careful with every motion, his hands first against Damen’s chest, and then sliding up to wrap around his neck. He feels so good like this, like for now, he is truly Damen’s alone.

When he pulls back from Damen, hiding his face in Damen’s shoulder, Damen cannot help but speak. “I was wrong, you are not a viper,” he says into Laurent’s ear. “You’re too sweet. Too lovely.”

“I am absolutely neither of those things,” Laurent protests dryly, but he’s smirking as though he’s satisfied with the compliment. “Not even my brother would ever think of me as sweet.”

Damen laughs at him. “I don’t think any elder brother thinks of his younger brother as sweet.” If he had to think of what Kastor would have called him, the first word that comes to mind is annoying. He had certainly said it often enough. “But I can think of you that way. Or does it offend you?”

It’s not the smirk, still present, that answers him but the way Laurent does not meet his eyes, looking somewhere else. He’s pleased then. Pleased enough that this time, with a flash of determination, Laurent is the one who turns Damen’s jaw and kisses him. It turns from sweet to something else quickly, and Damen eagerly takes all that Laurent offers.

He lets his hands roam, up and down Laurent’s arms, his back, his waist. There was never any doubt that Laurent’s form was all but perfect, but there’s a difference between seeing and feeling. In Damen’s arms, he is strong and warm, pulling on Damen’s chlamys and then his chiton, until they’re against the stone wall with Laurent between it and Damen.

“Your kyroi are wrong,” Laurent murmurs. “You are in fact very easily lead.”

“When I like the direction,” Damen replies, kissing his jaw. And he likes the direction this is going, though he wishes he could touch skin, and not just fabric.

It might be for the best though. If he gets his hands on Laurent, truly, this might go too far. A kiss he was invited to have is one thing. But he wants Laurent, and it’s taking more than he wants to admit to keep himself under control. Even if this might end where he would like it to, it will be in a bed, behind closed doors and not out here in a garden where anyone might see.

That means he must be the one to step back now, putting a scant few moments of space between them. Laurent’s grip on his chiton only tightens though, and he’s almost scowling at Damen. “I did not tell you to stop.”

“Sweetheart, have mercy,” Damen pleads, keeping the distance. “I need a moment.” His chiton does very little to give him any modesty and it must have been obvious to Laurent.

Laurent’s eyes trail down pointedly, and he huffs. “Not all of that poem was an exaggeration then.” But he still yanks on Damen’s chiton again, trying to force him back. “I still did not tell you to stop.”

“And yet I am,” Damen says, refusing to move. “I know how it is in Vere, but in Akielos, we do not do this outside, in front of everyone.”

In answer, Laurent makes a show of looking around them. “Are the trees and flowers going to watch? Take notes?”

“That is not the point,” Damen says, still not giving in, though he does raise Laurent’s hand to his lips. “I am not going to do this with you in a garden.” Laurent is worth more than that. If Damen ever gets to have him, he wants to be able to take his time, pay him the attention he deserves, not a quick fuck out here, where Damen will be distracted by every little noise. “That’s not what I want.”

Laurent huffs again and very efficiently slips out from between the wall and Damen. He’s still flushed all down his back, and while his clothes might give him more to hide behind, Damen could feel him too. “And what do you want, then?”

“Time,” Damen says. “To learn you, find out how I might give you pleasure, and do just that. To make you fall apart in my arms, as many times as I can.” He cannot help but approach, drawn to Laurent, daring to run his knuckles down Laurent’s back, the silk a flimsy barrier that does nothing to hide how smooth Laurent’s skin is underneath it. “I would like to hear you say my name.”

“What, Damen?”

He’s never said Damen’s name, he realizes, though Damen offered it. “Yes,” he answers into Laurent’s ear. “When will you be expected back?” He cannot press. Laurent is not supposed to be out here with him in the first place, and Damen knows he cannot ask Laurent back to his rooms. But they can do this, for just a little longer. He can hold Laurent, kiss his cheek.

“Soon,” Laurent answers, and while he does not like the somber way Laurent says it, he is happy that Laurent does not want to leave him either.

Before he can think better of it, he asks, “How much longer are you contracted for?”

“Why?” Maybe he should not have asked, because Laurent pulls out of his hold, turning to face him, his expression serious.

“Because I…” He doesn’t know if what he wants to offer could be taken as an insult. “I could buy it out.”

It is taken as an insult, Laurent sneering. “And then what? Take me back to Ios? To be your little Veretian bird? That would be quite an amusing acquisition for your collection.”

“No,” Damen says, understanding what Laurent heard. “I don’t want you to be my pet or a slave, Laurent.” And he doesn’t have a collection either, but he’s not going to dignify that. It was meant as a barb anyway. “I would like you to be able to choose me freely. If that means buying out your contract -”

Laurent does not let him finish, shaking his head. “I would cost you more than you can afford, Damen.”

That doesn’t make sense. Damen could buy every pet in Arles and the treasury would hardly notice. He doesn’t know how to say that though. It doesn’t matter, because Laurent isn’t done.

“What do you want me for then? If you don’t want me as a pet?”

He can answer that. “I would just want to be close to you. To see you happy.” And unburdened, by whatever it is that had him take a contract in the first place. “I think the library in Ios would make you happy. And the warmth. And I could try as well.”

“To make me happy?” Laurent pushes his loose hair back behind his ears, sounding exasperated with Damen. “You are ridiculous. I cannot think clearly around you.” He almost laughs, pushing his hair back again.

Damen did not want to upset him. “I won’t ask for an answer, then.” His touch is not unwelcome, when he places a hand on the small of Laurent’s back, and kisses him. “Can you think about it though? When you are away from me?”

“And now you’re mocking me,” Laurent complains, but he kisses Damen back.

“Only a little,” Damen concedes.

They can hear the bells even all the way out here. It’s getting late, but Damen can hear the party still too. They still have some time.

“Tell me about the other stories you liked. Why did the Queen of the Sky make a girl climb a rainbow?”

It’s Laurent who is looking at Damen now like he is a puzzle Laurent cannot figure out. But he still begins to walk with Damen again, and after a moment, he starts to speak. “Well, her mother was ill, like in all the stories…”

They don’t go back in until it is far closer to morning than sunset, the party quieter now, though there are plenty still up and about. Everyone they pass is too drunk to recognize their own mother, much less either of them though, and there’s no worry. When Damen parts from him, Laurent going down the hall that leads to where Lady Vannes’ party has been placed, Laurent still has the yarrow in his hair.

This time when Damen gets into his own bed, he’s too tired to really imagine anything solid. He falls asleep thinking only warm thoughts of Laurent, of what it could be like to have Laurent here with him, just as tired, curled up on the other side of the bed.

He would be very happy for it actually, when Babis comes running in a few hours later, a nurse hot on his heels, hissing, “Your uncle is sleeping, Exalted!”

Damen has a moment to prepare at least before Babis jumps into the bed, climbing up over Damen. It would be nice if he had someone here to distract him, or just foist him off on; Laurent would do.

“Uncle!” He hasn’t moved quickly enough, and now Babis is trying to shake his shoulder. “Uncle, there is a horse in the halls!”

That wakes him up a little more, peeking at Babis. “What has your grandmother told you about lying?”

“I’m not! Aliki, tell him!” As Damen sits up, shifting Babis off of him, he looks at the nurse, Aliki.

The woman nods. “There is indeed a horse in the halls, Damianos-Exalted.”

“Why?”

“I believe the answer would be wine, Exalted.” That sounds about right.

He’s awake now, so he gets out of bed, picking up Babis and handing him back to Aliki so Damen can wash and get dressed, his attendant slipping in now that he’s heard Damen getting up. As he shaves Damen’s face for him, Babis chatters some more about the horse, and Damen can hear quite a lot of noise out there. It seems the horse does not want to leave the hall.

“If I brought my pony into the palace, what do you think YaYa would do?” Babis asks, as Damen scrubs his nails. “Her face would look like this!” He squeezes his own face, trying to imitate Hypermenetra’s narrow, fine-boned face, as he raises his eyebrows like hers and sets his mouth in a grim line.

“I think you would not have a pony anymore,” Damen cautions, standing up and taking a fresh chiton from his attendant. “So do not try it.”

“YaYa cannot take my pony,” Babis protests.

“I would like to see you tell her that,” Damen replies. “When I was a little older than you, and your father was about fourteen, your grandmother took both of our horses from us for a month.” Granted, looking back, they had both well deserved the punishment. They had goaded one another into a race, and then had decided to jump their horses over a wall, when neither of them should have risked such a thing. Hypermenestra had nearly twisted both of their ears clean off their heads, and had shouted herself hoarse besides.

His ear still hurts when he thinks about it.

Babis looks deep in thought. “The guard said his father was dead too.” Aliki looks at Damen, meeting his eyes, and then down at Babis, smoothing his curls back. “When I get a sword, will I need a father to give me a scabbard too? I want one like his.”

That’s all this is then, and Damen feels the solemnity of the moment drain away. “Don’t you remember, he said his friend gave him that scabbard. And you have many friends, and you have your mother, your grandparents, and me.”

That satisfies him, and Babis asks Aliki for a story while Damen finishes up.

Laurent had ended up telling Damen many stories last night. About the Queen of the Sky, and then others, some even about when he was growing up, before Marlas. Damen had listened, and told his own, about growing up in Ios, and the sea. Laurent had said he did not know how to swim, and Damen had told him that if he came to Ios, he could learn. That time, Laurent had not snapped at him, had only made a considering face.

The wedding is over, he thinks, as he watches Babis run about in the training yard with Pallas and Atkis. They have been here for two weeks. They are now only here for another two weeks. Damen cannot stay away from his own duties any longer than that. Just asking for this much had taken a toll on his father. Theomedes had known that Damen had to go, and Babis too. They have been absent from the world around them for too long, and Babis needed to be introduced. And it is time, with Theomedes’ health the way it is, for their allies to see Damen as the King they will soon be dealing with.

But it had still taken a toll. His father has never recovered from Marlas, not really. Kastor was his first-born, his oldest son. Damen misses him too, but he knows it is different for his father.

“I look at Babis now,” he says later to Laurent that night, the pair of them hidden away in an alcove. “And I try to imagine losing him. It’s too much.” He cannot grasp it at all, what he would feel if Babis died. The feeling is too big. “But my father lives with it every day.”

Beside him, Laurent adjusts his wrap. “And he bears it. He is a King. What else could he do, lie down and die?”

“I think he wanted to,” Damen says. “If it hadn’t been for Polyxena, carrying Babis, I think he might have.”

“No, he would not have,” Laurent dismisses. “He had you still. You were only nineteen at Marlas, weren’t you?” When Damen nods, Laurent huffs, gesturing out at something. “And there you have it. Nineteen is too young to be a king. Even without Babis, your father would have gotten back up for your sake.”

That might not be true. “Kastor was his first-born. And to be honest, I think he favored Kastor over me, in many ways. He still thinks I’m too impulsive, too soft-hearted.” He’s shouted it at Damen often enough. “Hypermenestra has been my truest ally these past few years. But she always was.”

“Kastor was her son.”

Damen shrugs, grabbing the part of Laurent’s wrap that has gotten tangled and fixing it himself, pulling it up around Laurent’s shoulders. “She’s the only mother I’ve ever known.” And while Kastor might have been more clever than Damen, Damen knows he was always more amiable, always the easy child, when he wasn’t getting into trouble. “She and my mother were great friends, actually. My father has never been able to speak much of her. They didn’t actually know each other very well, in that way. Their marriage was brokered. Hypermnestra was fond of her.” So fond that sometimes, when Damen had asked about her, her eyes had been wet by the time she finished telling him some memory, or some small thing about Egeria. “And since I declared Babis my heir, she would have reason even if she didn’t like me.”

“Well, at least you see that much.” He’s smiling, Damen’s hands still on his shoulders, letting himself be drawn closer. “That would never happen in Arles. The Queen being friends with the King’s mistress, who had borne him a son.”

“It did vex my father,” Damen admits. The head of the household had told him that Theomedes had tried to separate them many times, but it had never worked. “Hypermenestra said my mother was the sweetest creature she’d ever met, and no one could meet her and not love her.”

Laurent’s tone is very cool, when he asks, “And did Hypermenestra love her?”

Damen has never asked. He knows that Hypermenestra had stayed on all these years because of Kastor, and because someone needed to fulfill the duties that were Egeria’s, not necessarily for continued love of Theomedes. But she had no reason to care for Damen the way she has, and still does. He could have been left to the care of his nurses and teachers. She has though.

“I think she did.” It’s the only reason he could see why she has loved him the way she has. Because he was the son of someone she had loved dearly, who never got a chance to love him.

“And so she was a mother to you, and now you are a father to her grandson,” Laurent says. “It helps that Babis is very easy to love.”

He would know. Damen and Babis had spent most of the afternoon enjoying the quiet of the palace, while everyone slept off the wedding, and when they had come across Laurent, Babis had managed to persuade him into a game of tag while Damen handled some affairs with the Patran Queen. It had been distracting, to see them playing together like that. “You should not let him win every time. You learn from losing.”

“Who says I let him win?” Laurent asks. “These clothes don’t allow much movement.”

“He’s five, and less than half your size,” Damen chides, pulling him closer.

Laurent’s wrap is on the ground by the time they part, the belt of fabric at his waist loosened too, though there was no point. There’s just more beneath, and Damen was not able to find any entry in his blind search. “Fuck,” Laurent mutters, picking it up and brushing the leaves off it. “How do these people dress like this all the fucking time?”

Damen can’t help himself. “You do know it’s supposed to be pinned to the inside of your sleeves?”

The color on Laurent’s face is telling enough, but his mouth drops open just a little too. He does not protest, just shuts his mouth and stands straight again, pulling the wrap tight around himself.

Amused, Damen takes the pin from his chalmys, and secures the wrap in place at Laurent’s shoulder. “Why do you dress in Patran fashions? The other Veretians do not.”

“I am not meant to stand out while we are here,” Laurent says.

Damen tries to imagine Laurent dressed as the other Veretian pets are, and finds his mind goes a bit empty, too much of his blood rushing down to his groin. “I don’t think I would notice anyone else if you were dressed as the other pets.”

“You notice others now?”

“No,” Damen says, because it’s both the correct answer and the honest one. “Do you dress as they do, when you’re in Arles?”

“That is not my purpose,” Laurent says. “And I do not need to be half-naked to get attention.” There is no pleasure or pride in that statement, only a sneer and a dull tone. “My brother has entertained many offers for me, no matter how I dress or behave. Luckily for me, my brother was only entertained, never tempted.”

It doesn’t seem wise to bring up that Laurent is contracted anyway. Perhaps he sees being a pet as better than being sold as a husband. A pet is a temporary position. A marriage would be forever.

He’s known him for a very short while, but Damen wonders what forever would be like with Laurent. Interesting, at the very least. He doubts he’d ever be bored.

During the days, Laurent is often nowhere to be found. But one of his guards will usually find Damen, and bring him a sealed note that tells Damen where to find Laurent that night. By the third day of this, he’s prepared, and when Orlant hands him a note, Damen hands one over as well.

That night, Laurent tells him that Akielon poetry is rather flowery. Too much hinting. And to prove it, when he pulls Damen into the alcove, he lifts his leg up over Damen’s hip. Damen grips the muscle of his thigh, holding him there and doesn’t manage to keep his hips from moving against him. It doesn’t help that Laurent tightens his leg when Damen does.

Damen braces Laurent against the wall, reminding himself of all the reasons why they shouldn’t do this, and especially not out here. There’s no doubt that Laurent knows all of them too, but he still looks up at Damen through his lashes, and raises his leg a little more.

“Your clothes seem to allow plenty of movement now,” Damen teases, giving in and kissing him.

The week has finished before Damen realizes, and now there is only a week left. Only a week, and then they have to go home to Ios. And if Laurent has thought any more about what Damen offered, he’s said nothing.

Another note is given to him, this time by Lazar, and Damen presses another to him to return to Laurent. “What is it you’re sending him? He almost looks happy to get them.”

“I am teaching him Akielon poetry,” Damen says and Lazar grins, lazily saluting Damen and wandering away. He’s not gotten but a few steps when he starts humming, deliberately loud enough that Damen can hear him.

He will never forgive Pallas for that.

Laurent meets him exactly where he told Damen he would be, but his expression is not welcoming. He doesn’t seem to notice Damen at all, staring out at nothing and rubbing his fingers together against his mouth. His clothes tonight are dark blue, a sheer silk robe so dark it matches the sky belted over top, embroidered with dark green and white, like ivy. His hair is completely down tonight, unbraided and hanging around his face and shoulders, silvery again, to match his fair skin.

He does not like to be called beautiful, Damen reminds himself before he says anything, his mouth dry.

“Are you all right?” Damen asks instead.

Laurent startles, and glares at Damen, expression sharp and serious in a way Damen has never seen before. But it quickly shifts when he blinks at Damen and melts back into that cool boredom. “You’re late,” he says, and ventures into the garden.

“Babis did not want to go to sleep,” Damen explains. “It’s only half-past, I am not very late.”

It’s cool again tonight, the air misty still from the earlier rain. Ahead of him, the beads embroidered into the silk sheer Laurent wears catch the light from the moon, coming through the clouds. He does not look quite real, and Damen remembers when he first saw him, standing up in front of Damen. A statue the gods breathed life into.

More than life; a clever mind and a sharp tongue and bright eyes, looking at Damen intently now. They are alone out here, the weather too damp and chilled to attract anyone else. It is only them, and Damen wonders at this feeling in his chest. He has had a hundred lovers or more, and he has never felt anything close to this when he looked at any of them. And none of them ever looked at Damen the way Laurent does.

“Have you confirmed your opinion of me yet?” Damen asks.

“Your handwriting is very bold,” Laurent answers. “And you have an awful lot of poetry memorized.” He steps forward and stops, a handspan away from Damen, if that. “You know, most pets are given jewelry when someone wants between their legs.”

His hair is too tempting, and Damen runs his fingers through it. “I don’t want a pet,” he says. “I don’t want a lover who doesn’t choose me.”

“How many times do I have to order you to kiss me before you get the hint?” Laurent asks.

“I’ve done that when you asked,” Damen replies, understanding this conversation now. “And sometimes when you haven’t.” He’d very much like to do it now, to feel Laurent soften and sigh against him. “But I will not take more when it is not freely offered.”

Laurent’s eyes are still very intent, searching Damen for something. “You’re not real,” he says, the softest accusation Damen has ever heard.

It’s nonsense. “I’m very sure I am.” He doesn’t know what has Laurent so bothered, and it’s worrying him. “Something is wrong, isn’t it?” There’s something off-step about Laurent, in his mannerisms and his expression. “Can you tell me?” If there is, Damen must be able to do something to help.

They are both quiet, Laurent seeming torn. It does not last long though, and without warning he forces himself out of Damen’s hold. “No,” Laurent says, and brushes past Damen, back towards the palace. “I cannot stay.”

He leaves Damen with no further explanation, and Damen does not stop him.

He has no desire to stay out here by himself, and after Laurent’s out of sight, Damen goes back inside too, his stomach twisting. There is a chance that Laurent has thought about what Damen asked, and decided against it. Or that all of this has been too much of a risk after all. Or even that one of his men, or someone else in Lady Vannes’ party has threatened him with discovery.

Damen has possibly caused him a lot of trouble. He should have stayed away, he thinks. Shouldn’t have given in when Laurent first ordered Damen to kiss him. Or put a stop to it after the first. He knew Laurent was not free to choose, and still he let it go on.

In his rooms, he sends the attendant and his servants away, sitting on the chaise and having a drink by himself.

He could have stopped him. Could have promised Laurent every protection, any money needed to buy out his contract, or whatever it was he needed. Anything to give Laurent choices.

Would he even choose Damen? Was that why he had balked at the offer? He could very well want the things Damen can provide, but not want the promises attached.

A second cup of wine is half-empty, and the bells have long tolled the next hour, when Atkis comes into the room. Damen acknowledges him, wondering what he could want at this hour, and Atkis looks to the doors significantly. “You have a visitor requesting an audience, Damianos-Exalted.”

“Who?”

Atkis is too well-trained to sigh at Damen, but he does look strained when he says, “The Veretian pet, Damianos-Exalted.”

This night is taking some interesting turns. Damen waits, but when Atkis does not admit Laurent, he says, “Yes, he may come in.” Quickly, he adds, “And you may leave.”

“Forgive me, Damianos-Exalted, but I do not think that is wise -”

“What am I going to do? Run your Prince through with the sword I am clearly not hiding?” Laurent had grown impatient, it seems, and has let himself in past the other guard. “Or are you looking for a reason to search me?”

“That’s unnecessary,” Damen says, speaking to both of them. “Atkis, leave us.”

He cannot disobey a direct order, no matter how stupid he thinks it is. He salutes Damen and leaves, shutting the door behind him.

Laurent does not look any less serious than he did before, but more determined. Once the door is shut, Damen expects him to speak, but he doesn’t. He stands there, in Damen’s room, looking like he’s having an argument with himself. If anyone could manage that, it’s Laurent.

“Do you want to tell me now?” Damen asks.

“No,” Laurent answers.

“Then why have you asked for an audience?” He’s not sure what’s happening here, though he thinks he has a good idea. But Laurent has to say it. “Are you wanting a drink?” It looks as though one might do Laurent some good.

“I have no desire to muddle up my head anymore than it already is,” Laurent hisses at him with real venom.

“Then why are you here, Laurent?” Why come to Damen’s rooms, if it’s only to attack him? “What do you want?”

Laurent shakes his head, and stands in front of Damen, close enough Damen can touch him. “I want you,” he says, heart-piercingly honest. “Is that good enough?”

It is more than good enough, Damen setting aside the wine and standing too, his hands on Laurent’s waist. He’s still wearing the clothes from before, with too many ties and too many layers, but Damen is eager to touch him now that he's been openly invited. It’s hard to find the lacings of the belt, but once he does, he makes quick work of unlacing them, and both belt and sheer robe fall.

The rest of it, Damen’s not sure he has any hope of. “In the back,” Laurent directs, turning and bringing his hair over his shoulder. There’s hooks and buttons visible now, as tiny as seed pearls, and Damen briefly envies the person who dresses Laurent in the morning. It takes forever to get them undone, and it must take at least twice that for the attendant to put them in place. But still, while they might have all the time to touch him, they are dressing him, and Damen is undressing him.

Once the buttons are undone, the outer layer comes loose and Laurent slips it off, standing there in his trousers and shirt.

Eager Damen might be, but he doesn’t miss that Laurent is shaking under his hands after the robe is off, and it puts a hard stop on his intentions. Instead of reaching for the hem of Laurent’s shirt, he settles his hands on Laurent’s upper arms, and kisses his shoulder, lingering there. “I would be content to hold you,” he promises.

“Be quiet,” Laurent hisses. “You might be content with that. That’s not what I came here for.”

But he’s still shaking, more so when Damen kisses his neck. “You said this was not your purpose. When did you last -”

“I cannot believe you’re the sort who wants details of that,” Laurent snaps, and turns to face Damen.

Laurent is younger than him by a few years. He said he was thirteen at Marles. He can’t be more than twenty now. He can’t have sold himself that many times since as a pet, and from what he has said, his brother protected him before. So Damen wonders aloud, “Laurent, have you ever?”

He looks panicked for all of a moment, and then looks away from Damen. “Yes.”

There’s something to that. Something obviously painful, and again Damen remembers that Laurent hates to be called beautiful. He wants to ask if it was by choice, or necessity. If any time Laurent has been with someone, it was by choice. Not just a transaction. He wonders if this might be the first time Laurent has chosen, and that’s why he’s nervous.

“Come here,” Damen cajoles, and takes him by the waist, kissing his neck. It only takes a little work there before Laurent is relaxing in his hold, his arms around Damen’s shoulders. By now, Damen thinks he’s learned at least a little of what Laurent likes, and despite what Laurent has said, it’s when Damen is slow and gentle that Laurent responds the best.

So that’s what he does now, taking Laurent to the bed, and letting him sit. Kneeling in front of him, and helping him out of his shoes. He kisses Laurent’s clothed knee while he’s at it, and tries to keep it at that. It’s just that it’s Laurent, sitting in his bed, half dressed with all his golden hair spilling around his face, the firelight behind it.

He is still beautiful, yes, but he feels entirely flesh and blood now, when Damen reaches for the hem of his shirt, and he raises his arms.

There’s some sparse blond hair in the middle of his chest, more running down to disappear into his trousers. Despite his still obvious trembling, he pushes himself back further on the bed, making room for Damen to reach for the laces of his trousers, and undo them. Laurent is not hard, not yet, but Damen intends to change that.

Laurent is naked, and Damen is not, but his clothes are easier to get out of. He undoes the pin at his shoulder, setting aside so it doesn’t get stepped on in the morning, and takes off his belt. His chiton is already half unwound from that alone, so it takes nothing to get it off.

And now they are both stripped, and Laurent is looking at him. Damen waits, wondering what he’s thinking, and is surprised when Laurent says, sounding reluctant, “You’re very attractive.” Surprised, but pleasantly so. He didn’t think Laurent did not find him pleasing, but Laurent is hard to read.

It makes him laugh, crawling between Laurent’s legs and kissing him again. “Let me learn you,” Damen says.

“And what, I’m to lie here and do nothing?”

“No,” Damen says, running a hand down Laurent’s side. He is warm, still shaking, but his face is set in determination again. “Do as you like.”

Laurent takes in a breath, and Damen bends so he can kiss his chest, right over his heart. Against his back, he feels Laurent place a hand on his shoulder blade, touching Damen too. It’s light, at first, but when Damen flicks his tongue over Laurent’s nipple, it tightens suddenly, Laurent gripping him.

He likes that then, and Damen does it again, coaxing more response out of Laurent. He’s silent, only his labored breathing giving him away. When Damen moves against him, he can feel how Laurent is stirring now, his hand moving to Damen’s hair, into his curls.

Without warning, he hooks a leg around Damen’s waist, and forces him closer, Damen unable to bite back the groan at feeling himself rub against Laurent fully. He moves his hips, his mouth against Laurent’s neck now, pushing his hair out of the way so Damen can follow the path up to his ear. He’s taken his earrings out, and Damen can nip at the lobe.

“It’s alright,” Damen soothes, placing his other hand on Laurent’s thigh, feeling the muscle. “You can ask for whatever you want of me.”

Laurent’s hand tighten in his hair. “What if I told you to suck my cock?”

He says it as an insult, as though he expects Damen to balk at it. What is sex like, in Vere? Veretians make things so complicated.

Either way, it’s a task Damen is happy to do, kissing his way down Laurent’s chest and stomach, the fine hair there tickling his mouth. When he looks up, Laurent is sitting up on his elbows, gaze cool and challenging. Waiting for an argument. Waiting for something, but clearly not for Damen to put his mouth to the head of Laurent’s cock, his hand at the base, working Laurent to full hardness.

Finally, Laurent makes a sound, a gasp escaping, and his hand falls back to Damen’s hair. He pulls on it, but does not order Damen to stop, so Damen does not, working his free hand into the sharp bone of Laurent’s hip while he takes Laurent as deep as he can.

When he moves his hand up, over Laurent’s stomach, he can feel how tense he is, even now, during this. Damen comes off of him, moves back up his body, and Laurent pulls him into a kiss, locking himself around Damen. There is heat between them, building, as Damen has to snatch at his own self control to stop himself from rutting against Laurent without care.

It’s just so much, being here with Laurent, feeling his hands on Damen’s skin, his own everywhere he can reach on Laurent, his mouth finding new places to kiss. He wants, but more than his own pleasure, he wants to give it to Laurent, wants him to enjoy this.

Damen reaches down between them, intending to work them together, but Laurent digs his nails into Damen’s shoulder, and says, “No. Not like that.”

“Then ask for what you want,” Damen tells him, trying to draw his mouth away from the join of Laurent’s jaw and neck, but failing. Laurent’s pulse and skin are sweeter than wine, the flutter of his pleasure there, the way his breath catches.

“Do I have to direct you every step of the way?” Laurent groans, and his nails are pinpoints of pain in Damen’s back, then hot. That will leave marks, and Damen can’t help how that puts fire in his blood, that there will be evidence of Laurent on him.

He wants to leave his mark on Laurent too, wants him to feel Damen in him tomorrow.

Whatever changes in his face, Laurent must see it, because he says now, long fingers trailing down Damen’s cheek, “I know they readied this room for you.”

They did, though Damen has had no cause to use anything set out. He has thought of no one except Laurent since he’s seen him. There’s a chance no one else will ever compare again. “I think you will ruin anyone else for me,” Damen confesses.

Laurent looks at him, blinks, then, “Well, fair is fair.” It is as much of a confession as Damen thinks Laurent might be capable of, and he savors it, kissing him again before getting out of the bed to find the bottles of oil that were set on the low table by the bed. Some of them are scented, meant for massage, but Damen finds a plain one on the third try, and comes back to the bed.

There might come a day when he is used to Laurent, where they have become accustomed to one another as lovers do, but it is not tonight. Tonight is new, and the way Laurent looks when he turns over for Damen causes that rush in his chest yet again. More, it reminds him that he has barely touched himself yet, and his cock aches for release of some kind.

He kisses the middle of Laurent’s spine, then the base, warming the oil up in his fingers before he puts it to use. Laurent is tight, almost too much so, and Damen rubs his thigh, then his back, taking his time as he works him open. He takes all the time he can, enjoying how Laurent slowly eases under him, while his breath comes in shorter, his fingers clenched in the sheets.

“Would you just get on with it,” Laurent demands, voice muffled from where he has his face pressed into the bed.

In truth, it’s taking a lot of willpower to not just fuck Laurent now. His cock is achingly hard, and he’s desperate for friction, but he wants this to be good, and he will not risk hurting Laurent in his own eagerness. So he ignores Laurent, kisses his back again, and continues to open him. Laurent is still hard when he reaches around and gets a hand around him, and the noise he makes for Damen sounds like it hurts to hold in.

“Don’t,” Damen encourages, just as desperate for Laurent’s pleasure as he is for his own release. “Let me hear, please, sweetheart.”

Laurent makes another sound, soft and pleading, and Damen cannot wait anymore.

When he pushes in, he hears, in Veretian, “Yes,”, and he answers by fucking in more, slowly, a little at a time, Laurent’s hips stuttering against his.

Fuck, but it is everything Damen thought it would be, when he imagined this, Laurent hot and tight, pushing back against him as Damen moves. Under him, Laurent is so much, and oh, he won’t last. It’s been too long since he’s been inside of someone, and he’s never been inside of Laurent before.

Every thrust takes him closer, and he’s losing the reins on himself, but Laurent does not protest, making more sounds, quiet, but there, the more Damen gives him. “I would have you, always,” he says, and does not know which language he says it in. “You are so perfect, Laurent -”

Laurent’s free hand starts to move down, but Damen stops him, ducks down so he can kiss his spine, gets his own hand around Laurent. He makes the loudest sound he has, lets Damen work him, and he’s so close too, Damen can feel it. It does not take much at all, and then Laurent clenches around him, comes in Damen’s hand and on the sheets.

It’s everything, and Damen loses himself in it, in Laurent, feeling how he relaxes entirely under Damen, so that Damen is the only thing holding him up, until finally, Damen’s own release comes.

He remembers enough to catch himself before he falls, pulling gently out of Laurent and making sure he does not crush him.

Laurent is facing him, when Damen looks at him, his eyes on Damen’s collarbone, glazed over.

“Come here,” Damen murmurs, reaching for him and pulling him against Damen’s chest. His hair is a mess, tickling Damen’s face, and he smooths it down, cradling Laurent’s head after. “Are you alright?”

The sound Laurent makes is a considering hum, but he says nothing else, only burying himself further into Damen. So they lay there for a while, Damen getting his breath back and listening to the sound of the fire crackling in the hearth.

“Your guards heard that,” Laurent mutters.

It won’t do any good to point out that whatever his guards heard, they were expecting to hear after Laurent came into his rooms. “They’ll talk amongst one another, but that’s all.” His guards are loyal, and well-trained. “And we do not discuss these things so blatantly.”

“I cannot stay until morning,” Laurent continues.

Damen expected that. “But you can stay for a little longer?”

“I will leave before dawn,” Laurent says, then sits up on his elbow, his eyes intense again as his hand drops down between them to wrap around Damen’s cock. He was already half-hard again, just from being close to Laurent, but thought maybe Laurent hadn’t noticed. Of course he did though. “And I expect to be well-sated by then.”

“Do you? And what am I supposed to do about that?” Damen asks, playing along.

In response, Laurent hums a little, that same familiar tune, then says, “I still do not believe it was seven hours.”

Damen has never been able to resist a challenge. And he has no reason to resist this one.

He drifts off sometime before the dreaded dawn, the fire so low it’s only embers, with Laurent against him. When he wakes, the sun is bright on the balcony and he is alone. Laurent having left without waking him.

Still tired, he stays in bed for a little longer, wondering how the nurse managed to keep Babis from running in. Someone must hear him moving around though, because one of the servants with fresh water for him to wash up.

After the attendant shaves his face for him and he’s mostly clean, he has the nurse bring him Babis at the same time another sets out something to eat. It’s far past breakfast, midday, really, and he’s starving. Babis only picks at some sugared fruit, then wanders off to pick up something off the ground. He sits there, playing with it, until Damen asks him what he has.

Babis shows him a bracelet, and Damen knows it immediately. It’s gold, set with moonstones, and he had seen it on Laurent’s wrist last night. All the more reason to seek him out today.

This evening, when he finds Laurent again, he will make his offer. To pay off whatever was left on his contract, with only the promise that Laurent would consider coming to Ios, and that he might let Damen write to him. Then, when Damen comes to Arles for the treaty, Laurent could tell Damen his choice.

He had come to Damen last night, by his own choice. Damen just has to hope. Hope that it means what he wants it to.

When Pallas comes on duty for the afternoon, Babis goes to him, allowing Pallas to swoop him up in his arms and swing him up. Babis laughs. “You’re getting too big for that, Exalted,” Pallas says, setting him down with a wince. “Or maybe my back is getting too old.”

“Maybe you should spend less time on it,” Damen says, in Veretian, so Babis does not catch on to the true meaning.

Pallas shakes his head at Damen, smirking, switching off the guard currently occupying the balcony. “You cannot blame me, Damianos-Exalted. I was never very good at short good-byes.”

“‘Good-bye’?” Damen asks. “And who earned the honor of that long good-bye?”

“Lazar,” Pallas says easily, his back to Damen as he patrols the balcony. “The Veretian guard. We’ve enjoyed one another’s company well. I would not mind seeing him again.”

The realization is dawning on Damen very slowly. It cannot be though. “Lady Vannes’ party is leaving today?” It never occurred to him that the Veretian party would leave before Damen. “When?”

The look on Pallas’ face, when he turns to Damen, answers the question even before Pallas says, seeming confused, “Damianos-Exalted, Lady Vannes’ party left this morning. Just after dawn.” Good man that he is, Pallas does not ask aloud the question in his eyes: did you not know?

Only what had Laurent said to him? I cannot stay.

He did not even say good-bye.