His brown curls were tousled, and without his paint or jewelry, he looked as young as he was. When he was in the full splendor of a pet, especially when he lashed out with words far beyond his years, it was harder to remember that he was just a child. Standing here now, in a white silk robe thrown over a finely embroidered white nightshirt, with none of the adornment, it was impossible to forget.
His blue eyes sharpened as he recognized Damen. “You! What are you doing here?” Nicaise had lost none of his petulant tone in the time they had been gone from the palace.
Damen lowered his sword and, as if approaching a rabid fox to try to pet it, took one step slowly towards Nicaise. He watched as Nicaise took a step back and turned slightly towards the door he had come out of. Damen put up a hand, palm towards Nicaise, in a calming gesture to stop him from calling out.
“I'm here for Laurent,” he said, his voice quiet. “I have to get him out of here.”
A ripple of confusion passed over Nicaise's face. “He isn't here,” he said bluntly. “What are you really doing?”
Damen felt a cold trickle of fear run down his spine. It was one thing for the guards to be in the dark about Laurent's presence here, but for Nicaise to not know anything was—unsettling.
“Listen to me,” Damen said. “Laurent is in this room.” He indicated the door behind him, and Nicaise followed the movement, a furrow between his brow. “He is in grave danger. I need to get him out of here. And you need to come with us. The Regent plans to kill you both.”
Nicaise crossed his arms, his expression changing into childish pride. “The Regent would never harm me,” he said smugly.
“Are you sure about that? The Prince said that you had less than a year, and that was months ago,” said Damen. “You're what, fourteen? You're almost too old for him.”
A flicker of worry passed over Nicaise's features before he lifted his chin stubbornly. “I'm not like the others. He is going to keep me. He said that I'm special.”
“Then did he tell you the message he sent to the Prince? That if Laurent didn't come here for his execution, you would be killed in his place? Were you part of that plan?”
Nicaise's chest was rising and falling rapidly, his lip trembling slightly. “I'm—I'm sure it was just a trick. He wouldn't.”
Damen took another step towards him. “Please, listen to me, Nicaise. The Regent is dangerous. You can't stay here. Come with me and Laurent, we will take you somewhere safe. Laurent cares for you, he will give you everything you need for a comfortable life.”
Doubt and resentment had crept over Nicaise's face as he battled between what Damen was saying and what he wanted to believe. “He loves me,” he said in a small voice that shattered Damen's heart.
Damen adopted the gentlest tone he could. “No, Nicaise. It is not love, what he is doing to you. Love is selfless and giving and kind. The Regent is manipulative and cruel and—” Damen could not bring himself to describe the horrors that had been done to this child. “Come with us. You will see, then, the difference.”
Nicaise was shaking his head, and at that moment he looked even younger than he was. “I told you, Laurent isn't here,” he spat, grasping at that fact to avoid everything else Damen had said.
“Why would there be men guarding this room, then?”
“They weren't guarding it. The Regent doesn't allow any guards to stand directly outside our door. That's why they were over there. That room is empty. Go on, open it.”
Disconcerted—and ignoring the shiver of disgust that ran through him at the word our—Damen turned back, stepping over the guards' bodies to open the door.
It opened to reveal a grand, opulent room, adorned with red silks and the usual intricately carved Veretian ornamentation. Beautiful arched windows spanned the far wall, and there were reclining couches off to his left. The large bed was to the right, covered with pillows and heavily embroidered fabric.
He could see every corner of the room, and it was painfully clear that it was empty. Laurent was not here.
“I'm afraid the boy is telling you the truth,” said a deep, calm voice from behind him. The bottom dropped out of Damen's stomach, and he turned to find the Regent, standing with his arm around Nicaise.
Nicaise had tucked himself into the heavy silk of the Regent's over-robe, grasping for comfort from all that Damen had said. The Regent slowly stroked the boy's head, running his fingers through the soft brown curls. Damen's stomach turned at the sight.
“It's such a shame you came all this way,” the Regent continued, as if they were having polite conversation over dinner. “I'm sure your army is missing you. Though I must admit, I'm surprised to see you in Veretian clothing. And”—the Regent tilted his head theatrically— “are you still wearing the gold my dear nephew imprisoned you in? How quaint.”
Hot anger rose in Damen. He longed to end this here and now, to reach out and strike the Regent down where he stood. He held himself back, barely. If he killed the Regent, he would never find Laurent.
“Where is he?” he said, his voice deadly and quiet.
The Regent shook his head in mock sorrow. “Believe me, I am as disappointed that he isn't here as you are.” He said it in the clear, reasonable voice that he always used, the one that had deceived Damen at the palace. “I had hoped that he would find his courage, that he would finally act like the man he is, instead of a disobedient boy who didn't get his way.”
“You want me to believe you don't know where he is?” Damen asked, shaking with poorly-controlled rage.
“Oh, no, I know exactly where he is,” the Regent said, looking Damen straight in the eye. “You see, my nephew is very predictable. If you know the right leverage—” he looked down and smiled at Nicaise, pulling him closer, “—Laurent is quite easy to persuade.” He looked back up at Damen. “Unfortunately, the road he took was dangerous, and there are so very many places a man could get waylaid.”
Damen could taste the fear in his mouth, sour and biting. He refused to believe it. “You killed him.” He barely recognized his own voice.
“Oh no. I need Laurent alive, my dear....well, I suppose I should call you 'Your Highness', shouldn't I? Or do you prefer 'Exalted'? I can't quite keep track of Akielon titles when it comes to royalty.”
Nicaise looked up at Damen, his blue eyes huge with shock. “You...you're...”
The Regent looked down, speaking as if to a favorite son. “Hard to believe, isn't it? This is the former Crown Prince of Akielos, Damianos.” His eyes raked back over Damen. “Though it really doesn't matter now. I was so impressed with your restraint, pretending to be a slave in the palace. It must have been unbearable for you to serve Laurent. Though it seems you have—warmed up to him. Surely he wasn't so satisfying in bed as to shift your loyalty away from your own country.”
Damen swallowed down his hatred. “Laurent is twice the man that you are,” he said. “You, with your twisted, evil games, your lies and treachery. The throne is his, by birth and by right.”
“I think you'll find that I did nothing to force him into his treason,” the Regent said, his eyebrows lifting. “In fact, of the two of us standing here, you had more to do with it than I. The moment he climbed in your bed, he forfeited his right to rule.”
“As if that wasn't your plan from the start,” Damen said with contempt. “Conspire with my brother, give me to your nephew, get me into his bed, and then reveal who I am. It would wreck him, to know that he had unwittingly bedded his brother's killer, and in the same move you could get him out of your way.”
The Regent smiled at him indulgently, as if Damen had just figured out the answer to a particularly troublesome riddle. “You must admit, it would have been elegant. You, unfortunately, were harder to predict than my nephew. I hadn't dreamed that you would refuse to fuck him, or that you would step in to save his life. It was rather frustrating, I have to say. I was particularly disappointed that I didn't get to see his face when he found out who you are. Tell me, how did he react?”
The Regent's calm, pleasant voice stoked Damen's anger higher. “He knew who I was the moment he saw me dragged in front of him in chains,” he said. “I hate to deny you your sick pleasure, but everything he did, he did with the knowledge of who I truly am.”
Nicaise was listening closely, watching with an unidentifiable look in his eyes. The Regent shook his head. “How unsatisfying. I must say, I didn't think even Laurent was so debauched as to let you bend him over, knowing full well who you were. To debase himself so, to disrespect his brother's memory in such a way...” he trailed off. “It's quite—distasteful.”
Damen couldn't help the disgusted laugh that came forth. “Distasteful? There is nothing more distasteful than your own...proclivities,” he said, glancing down at Nicaise. “At least Laurent chooses lovers appropriate for his own age. Lovers who have a choice, and enjoy it in return.”
A spark of amusement kindled in the Regent's eyes, impossible to decipher. “I think you would find that Laurent's innocence is not quite as unsullied as you assume,” he said. Before Damen could ask what he meant, the Regent continued. “At any rate, I grow tired of this. I appreciate your willingness to appear at my nephew's trial. Your testimony will be invaluable.”
Damen felt a strong grasp on each of his arms, and looked around to find two new guards holding him in place. In his rage, he hadn't been paying attention to anything but the Regent. Jerking in their grip, he tried to pull away, but they were large men, and he couldn't get free. He looked back at the Regent, his gaze burning. “If you think for one second I would say anything against Laurent, anything to help you, you're even more deranged than I thought,” he hissed.
The Regent smiled. “Ah, you see, Damianos, that's the beauty of it. It doesn't matter what you say,” he said. “You could tell the Council every word I've said to you tonight, and it would change nothing. Your presence alone will be the rope with which my nephew hangs himself. Take him to the cells,” he told the guards, turning to go back to his room.
Nicaise pulled out of his grip, staring at Damen. He seemed to be trying to make a decision, uncertainty flashing over his face. Damen could see the moment he decided to speak, determination in his eyes.
“You have to tell the Prince something for me,” he said, though his voice quavered. The Regent frowned, turning back to him.
“No,” Damen said, a sudden dread creeping over him. He tried to drag himself forward. “Nicaise—don't say anything—”
“It's important,” the boy said in a rush, taking another step forward. “If you find him, you have to tell him that his father and his brother—”
The stroke was quick, too quick for Damen to do anything. He wrenched himself violently towards Nicaise, feeling a sharp pain in his shoulder as he was twisted back into submission, but it was no use. The knife was small but sharp, and it sliced along Nicaise's throat like a caress. All Damen could see was blue eyes, wide and young, as blood soaked into the delicate white fabric of his nightshirt.
“No!” He shouted, black spots clouding his vision. “Nicaise—” He was on his knees, the guards' grip still tight as steel on him.
The Regent laid Nicaise's body down gently on the floor, as if he were simply tucking him into bed. He looked with distaste at the knife, dropping it and wiping the blood from his hands on a silk handkerchief before discarding that as well.
“Such a shame,” he said, looking down at Nicaise's still form. “He was such a beautiful boy. But it was nearly time, anyways. Besides, you will be much more valuable leverage,” he said, looking at Damen. His eyes raised to the guards. “Once you have him locked up, come back and clean this up.”
Without another glance at Nicaise, at the horrendous thing he had done, the Regent turned and swept into his room, closing the door tight.
The guards pulled him away from Nicaise's body, though he didn't make it easy for them as he struggled and jerked against their grip. He hadn't understood Nicaise, hadn't even liked him, but now he couldn't stop staring at the grotesque color of his blood marring his otherwise pristine white clothing.
He was just a child. A child who would never get to become anything else. He had died believing that the Regent loved him, that the unspeakable things he had done to him were natural. He would never get to experience the truth of love, the mutual trust and safety that came with it. The only relationship that had been true was his strange, almost brotherly bond with Laurent, who had been willing to give up everything to save him.
And Damen had failed them both. He had watched as the life left Nicaise's eyes and had done nothing to stop it.
Laurent. Fire burned through Damen, grief and anger that overtook all of his senses. The injustice of it, of all of this, of Laurent having to play this despicable game, of him being denied his birthright, of him being captured somewhere and Nicaise dying anyways...
It was as if a dam had broken. Unable to contain the raw emotion flooding through him any longer, Damen dropped to one knee and twisted hard in the guards' grip, ignoring the tearing pain in his shoulder as it was pulled further. Surprised, the guard on the left stumbled, letting go of Damen as he tripped into his companion. One arm finally free, Damen reached out and grabbed the sword from one of the guards he had killed earlier, lying on the ground to his side. With a long, sweeping blow, he drove the sword into the back of the second guard's knees, forcing him to let go of Damen as he fell to the ground in agony. Damen stood, his sword raised and ready.
The first guard had recovered himself, and swung at Damen with a strong, two-handed grip as he rose. Again using caution to avoid causing too much noise, Damen stepped quickly aside, dodging the guard's swing, and brought his own sword down in a long slash across the man's chest. The guard fell.
Turning back to the second guard, Damen was shocked to find him back on his feet. It was a truly remarkable show of strength, as he used one hand to prop himself up on the wall behind him. He swung his sword wildly with the other, catching Damen in his surprise. Damen leaned back, not far enough. The tip of the sword met his throat—
— and hit the collar, the blow leaving a long gash in the side of the gold. Damen didn't give the guard another chance. A quick, efficient stroke ended it.
Damen stood there, his chest heaving, for a few long minutes. He waited for the door to open, for the Regent to come investigate the noises, or for more guards to pour up the staircase. None came.
He should leave now, get out of here as fast as possible. Every second he lingered was another chance to be caught, another moment that Laurent might be somewhere cold and dark, suffering or dying. But he couldn't just leave Nicaise here like this, with no one to mourn him. Keeping one eye on the Regent's door, he walked slowly over and sank to his knees beside the boy.
Looking down at him, Damen found himself thinking, irrationally, that he was glad Nicaise hadn't died with pearls in his hair.
He slid his hands underneath Nicaise and lifted him from the cold stone, ignoring the sharp protest from his shoulder. Damen's heart twisted at how light he was, how small, cradled in his arms. Standing, he stepped over the dead guards and into the room he had thought to find Laurent in. He paced over to the large, ornate bed, leaning down to lay Nicaise gently in the middle of it. Damen reached over and closed his eyes, his touch soft. He was unable to bear looking at the extraordinary blue of them any longer, devoid of the life he had seen glittering there such a short time ago.
Damen pulled a silk sheet over Nicaise and, making sure to cover his throat and his blood-drenched clothes, draped it with care around his slight frame. Except for the stillness of his chest and the arm that had fallen lifelessly to the side when Damen had put him down, he could be asleep.
Damen reached into his pocket for the other item he had taken with him from Laurent's tent that morning. He looked down at it, watching the light glint off it. It was strange to think of it in another context, remembering what it had looked like at the inn, dangling low to brush Laurent's shoulder.
He placed the sapphire earring softly in Nicaise's outstretched palm. Damen's dark, rough hand enveloped the child's delicate white one, wrapping Nicaise's small fingers around the earring. He brought Nicaise's closed fist up to rest on his chest, in the best approximation of peace as was possible here in this cold, bitter room.
“He would have wanted you to have it back,” he whispered, and had to swallow around the sudden burn in his throat.
He stood, staring down at Nicaise, thinking of all that had been lost. Not only here, but at Marlas, at Ios, at every battlefield that had soaked in the blood of their hatred. Such reckless devastation, laying waste to their lives. He made a silent promise to Nicaise that, if it was in his ability, he would end it here. That if he regained his throne, he would break this cycle of retribution and hostility. Nicaise would be the last casualty in this bloody struggle for power.
He reached down and tucked in a loose corner of the sheet. Then, with one last wrench of his heart, he turned and walked away, leaving Nicaise behind him, small and alone amongst the red silks.