Fitting the slave collar back around his own neck was a surreal and complicated feeling. He couldn't believe that he was willingly putting it back on. A whisper of the old rage and helplessness he had felt tangled with a strange comfort, the collar a familiar weight, an embrace and a declaration. For a moment he had to fight against the onslaught of emotions. He didn't have time to examine them, not while Laurent was in danger.
He couldn't fully clasp the collar, not without a blacksmith, but it would stay on enough to serve his purposes. Only close scrutiny would reveal that it was not fastened, and if someone had the chance to notice, it would mean that Damen had bigger problems. He would have to do without the second cuff—there was nothing to be done about that. Knowing that Laurent, wherever he was, was wearing the matching cuff alleviated his anxiety just a bit. It felt like a direct connection between them, a lifeline linking them together.
Damen had changed back into the Veretian clothing that he had worn for their departure from Arles before he had raced out of the camp that morning. He loosened the ties at his wrist and his throat to reveal the gleam of gold, hoping that no one questioned the fact that his right wrist remained tightly laced to hide the absence of the second cuff.
If Laurent were with him, he would most likely already have a precise plan, complete and infuriatingly effective. Probably involving outlandish disguises and clever wordplay, or a plot hatched in the dark weeks ago, finally coming to fruition.
If Laurent's planning was like a detailed map, Damen's was more like a vague outline that just barely indicated what was land and what was sea. It wasn't complicated, simple enough to get the job done. Get into the keep. Find Laurent. Get out. The slave collar was the extent of his disguise. The rest he would have to figure out as he went.
He tied his horse within the copse of trees, close enough to a small stream that it could drink if it wished. Reluctantly, he left his sword with the horse, knowing he would never get it past the guards. It felt like walking in naked, even though he could hardly be wearing more clothing. Swallowing down his discomfort, he turned and picked his way down the hillside, then, against all instincts, strode directly into the light from the windows and up to the front gate.
He immediately found himself face-to-face with three guards, all with swords trained directly on him. He dimly recognized the man on the left from his time at the palace, part of the Regent's Guard. That was who he addressed.
“I have come to speak to the Regent. I have important information to pass along that he asked me to obtain.”
He saw the guards take him in, noting with satisfaction that their eyes lingered on the gold that marked him.
The guard in the middle scoffed. “And what information would a slave have that would interest the Regent?”
The guard to the left was eyeing him speculatively, and Damen saw the moment of recognition. This was his first gamble. The Regent clearly knew that the man gifted to his nephew was, in fact, the King of Akielos—he had conspired with Kastor in this, after all. His only hope was that he had judged correctly, that the Regent would wait to reveal his identity as the final, incontrovertible evidence of Laurent's treason. If he had guessed wrong, if the Regent had exposed him, his rescue attempt was over before it began.
The guard stepped forward, his sword still at the ready. “This isn't just any slave. This is the Akielon beast, the personal bed slave of the Prince of Vere.” Ignoring the surprise from the other two guards, he watched Damen, looking him up and down.
“First you, then the Akielon Prince-Killer. We thought the Prince didn't fuck, but it turns out he just has a type,” the guard said, his words laden with disgust. Despite the disrespect, Damen was flooded with relief. They didn't know who he was.
The guard continued. “Have you come to tell the Regent where his nephew is? Is he coming to face the consequences of his treason like a man, or has he decided to hide like the coward he is, in the midst of Akielon dogs?”
Dull anger pulsed through Damen at the insult to both him and Laurent. The words didn't make sense. Had the guards not been told that Laurent was already here? It reeked of the Regent, secrecy and lies. There was nothing for Damen to do but go with it.
“My news is for the Regent alone. We struck the deal months ago, my freedom in exchange for the proof of the Prince's treachery.” The words felt twisted coming out of his mouth, but they seemed to satisfy the guards.
“Your freedom for fucking the Prince?” The third guard said. “Hell of a deal. I hope the Prince enjoyed it, at least—bending over for you has brought him to his ruin. For his sake, I hope it was worth it.” He eyed Damen as if he very much doubted that.
Damen thought of Laurent, of the press of their bodies together and their limbs tangled after. The guard had no idea of the truth, but his words brought a sick feeling to Damen's stomach all the same. It would be so much simpler for Laurent if he were free to hate Damen. He was afraid, he realized, that he was leading Laurent to disaster.
But it wouldn't matter if Laurent was already dead.
“Take me to the Regent.”
This was his second gamble. The last thing he truly wanted was to be brought before the Regent, but it was necessary to get inside. With the late hour, it was likely that the Regent was asleep, and Damen hoped that his guards were reluctant enough to disturb him that they would force him to wait until morning.
Luck was on his side. After some brief muttering between them, the guard he had recognized stepped forward. “You will come with me. You will be kept under lock until morning, at which time you can present your information to the Regent.”
Damen allowed himself to be steered into the keep. He watched carefully where they were going, grateful that it was nowhere near as complicated as the palace had been. If he could find Laurent, he could get them out of here quickly and easily.
The room he was brought to was small and nearly empty, besides a plain bed. Damen was disappointed—he had hoped to be brought to the cells, where they were likely keeping Laurent. Now he would have to search, instead of being brought directly to his goal. But there was nothing to be done for it.
It was an easy matter to turn to the guard, duck inside his reach as he raised his sword, and, with a neat little twist of his wrist, disarm him. The surprise on the guard's face before Damen knocked him unconscious was a little insulting—as if it was a shock that a slave had overpowered him. They should have sent more than one guard.
Damen dragged the guard's body into the room, lifting it with a grunt onto the bed and covering it vaguely with bedding. If anyone came to check, a quick glance would appear to show Damen in bed where he should be. It was likely the guard would be out for several hours, with the blow to the head Damen had given him, but as a precaution, Damen searched him for the key to the room and locked him in. He needed all the time he could buy. He picked up the guard's fallen sword, relieved to have a weapon again.
Pausing outside the door, Damen had to make a decision. He looked to his right, where rooms and hallways branched off and a staircase went up to the next floor. He had no idea how the keep was laid out, but they had passed a staircase going down on their way here. It was as good a place as any to start, and if he was lucky he wouldn't have to venture further into the keep.
Turning back the way he had come, he had to press himself into a shadow as a pair of guards approached. They were casual, not expecting anything out of the usual, and passed by Damen without a glance. He waited for them to turn the corner, then moved cautiously in the other direction.
He ducked into the staircase, bringing his stolen sword up, ready to encounter a retinue of guards. Down the darkened staircase he went, each step taken carefully. Cold air drifted around him, throwing tiny shivers over his skin. After what felt like forever, he reached the bottom. No blows met his sword.
Two things became immediately apparent. He had found the cells—and they were empty.
Damen swore under his breath, panic threatening to overtake him. How would he find Laurent now? There had to be fifteen rooms he could be in, at least. Damen couldn't simply burst through the doors until he found him, for fear of waking the entire household, or worse, the Regent.
He took a deep breath, forcing the panic down, and allowed himself a moment to evaluate. He tried to think like Laurent, to imagine what would suit the Regent best. Damen would have kept a prisoner, even an important one, in the cells and under heavy guard. But Laurent and the Regent usually did the opposite of whatever he would do, decisions that made no sense to Damen's practical mind.
It came to him, then. The Regent would have Laurent in one of the rooms that all keeps had for important visitors, a quiet mockery of how high Laurent had started, only to come so low. He would keep him in luxury, close to him, as he enjoyed his victory. It was a taunt, a final humiliation.
Damen turned and made his way back up the stairs.
The hallway was still and quiet as he crept back past the room he had been taken to. The richest rooms would be on the next floor, up the staircase Damen had seen to his right. Making his way quietly up them, he paused at the top, pressing himself to the wall and looking around the corner. There were two doors, one nearer to him on the left side of the hallway, and another further down the hall, on the right. Two guards stood on either side of the nearer door.
He took a few deep breaths, then pushed into the hallway. The two guards turned towards him, pulling their swords from their sheaths. It would have been easiest to parry the first swing, but the ring of steel on steel would almost certainly wake the Regent, who had to be in the room farther down the hallway. Damen ducked under the sword and grabbed the second guard by the front of his livery, whose surprise at Damen's sudden proximity momentarily gave Damen the advantage. He turned, pulling the guard in front of him, just in time for the first guard's sword to sink deep into the other guard's back, where Damen's had been only a moment before.
Damen let go of the guard, letting his body sink to the ground, pulling the sword out of the other's grip. With a quick, quiet blow, Damen dispatched the second guard, who fell just to the side of his companion.
A pang of regret pulsed through him. He didn't like killing if it wasn't on a battlefield, and even then it was a weight on his heart. The only crime these men were guilty of was loyalty. Then again, Damen thought, they decided the Regent was the right person to be loyal to. They should have chosen better. They should have chosen their Prince.
Damen turned to the door the men had been guarding, his heart beating at the thought of finding Laurent behind it, of getting him out of here. But before he could open the door, he heard a sound to his right. Turning, he brought his sword up, expecting more guards.
Instead, standing several feet down the hallway, blinking the sleep from his eyes, was Nicaise.