In the end, getting inside was almost ridiculously easy, which, inexplicably, only served to irritate Damen further. The sentries posted on the battlements ignored them, seeing only an aristocratic couple out on an evening stroll. Jokaste led him to a side door, guarded by only one man. Gesturing for Damen to wait where the guard could not see him, Jokaste walked gracefully toward the guard. He straightened when he saw her approach, his eyes locked onto her, enraptured.
Damen shook his head. That was the dangerous thing about Jokaste—she used her beauty as a distraction. If you didn't look past it, the spear of her mind would catch you unaware, and you would smile while you bled. Damen knew that better than anyone. This guard was about to learn for himself.
She leaned in conspiratorially, tilting her head demurely. Her words were too low for Damen to hear, but he caught the musical tone, the flirtatious warmth. The guard was smiling, completely enthralled. After a few minutes, he bowed low to her, taking her hand in his to kiss it, and walked off into the night.
Jokaste watched after him for a moment, then, sure that he was gone, she waved Damen to her side. He joined her, a small, disbelieving breath pushing past his lips.
“What did you say to him?”
Jokaste smiled, and Damen could see the venom in it. “I told him I had been searching for a rare flower, my favorite, but it got dark and I had gotten scared. I suggested to him that if he could find it for me, I would reward him. Generously.”
“Your charm has no limits,” he said dryly.
“Yes, I'm aware. Now do you want inside, or would you rather stay out here, exchanging pleasantries all night?”
Damen moved past her to the door. It opened onto a long, brightly-lit hallway, doors and corridors splitting off in all directions. He paused, a little overwhelmed at the size of the task in front of him. He forced himself to take it one step at a time. Find Laurent. Don't get caught. Get him out of here.
“The cells are not far,” Jokaste said beside him. “There are very few people who know the Prince is here, and in their secrecy, they've placed only a couple guards there. If they put more, people would start to ask uncomfortable questions.”
“And how did you learn that he was here?” Damen asked.
Jokaste looked at him, her gaze almost pitying, as if the answer were obvious. Thinking back to how easily she got rid of the guard at the door, Damen supposed it was.
“Take off your jacket,” she told him. “We are almost certain to pass a few people, and the blood is going to cause concerns.”
Damen did as he was told, spending precious minutes undoing the laces before peeling the outer jacket off. His undershirt was blessedly clean except for a few small spots that should go unnoticed by a casual glance. He bunched the jacket, hiding the worst of its stains, and draped it over his left arm, covering the cuff.
Jokaste ran a cursory glance over him. “It's not ideal, but it should be adequate. Follow me.”
Like the palace, Fortaine was complex and intricately adorned. Without Jokaste, Damen would have been lost in minutes. Cursing Veretian architecture, Damen followed, trying to keep track of the twists and turns so that he could find his way out again. They passed a few people, minor nobility and members of the household, as Jokaste had predicted. Their gazes all passed quickly over Damen and settled on Jokaste's striking figure. Damen found himself both grateful and annoyed.
He was uncomfortably aware that he was entirely at the mercy of Jokaste. She could be leading him straight to Guion, turning him over to the Regent to secure even more power than she already had. But he had no other choice than to trust her. He vowed to never tell Nikandros about this, if he got out of this alive. Damen had ignored his warning once—finding out he had trusted her a second time, after she had him bound and enslaved, might be the thing that finally pushed him over the edge.
Finally, Jokaste put an arm out, stopping him. “The cells are down there,” she murmured, pointing to a staircase around the corner, guarded on either side, the men alert with their swords drawn. “I will draw their attention long enough for you to incapacitate them.”
Damen opened his mouth to ask how he was supposed to take on two armed men without a weapon, but Jokaste was already moving forward, striding down the hallway. As the men turned to watch her, inclining their heads respectfully, Damen realized she was the weapon.
She walked past them and then, with an artful twist, tripped to the ground. She cried out, gripping her ankle in apparent agony, and the two men rushed towards her with concern. Damen took that as his signal.
Dropping his jacket to the ground, he came up behind the men, who were now helping Jokaste up, each taking one of her arms. Trying and failing to come up with a better plan, Damen placed his hands on either side of their heads and pushed them forcefully together. With a sickening sound of skull on skull, the men fell unconscious to the ground.
Jokaste was readjusting the flowing fabric of her dress, looking down at the guards with a raised eyebrow. “Well, that was brutish,” she said, looking back up at Damen. “but I can't deny that it was effective.”
“It took less time than trying to steal one of their swords,” he said, shrugging. “Plus, I'd like to keep one item of my clothing free of blood.”
Kneeling down, Damen rummaged in the guards' pockets until he found the keys to the cells below, then dragged their inert bodies into the stairwell. It would be obvious what had happened if anyone came here, but it was better than leaving them in the open hallway. He grabbed one of the dropped swords, feeling his uneasiness lift a little at the comforting weight of the weapon in his hand. Jokaste then picked up the other, and Damen's discomfort immediately returned in full force.
Jokaste caught him staring and rolled her eyes, somehow making even that look elegant. “Please, Damen,” she said. “If I wanted to stab you, I would have done it with the knife. Swords are so—” she wrinkled her nose “—crude.”
Damen considered her for another long moment, then, with tremendous misgiving, he turned his back on her and began down to the steps.
With Jokaste following behind him, Damen descended the narrow stone stairs, his heart beating a painful rhythm against his ribs at the thought of what he would find below.
The cells were cold and dank, the torches on the wall flickering, making shadows dance along every stone. Damen crept forward, careful to make no noise. He could hear the low sound of someone talking somewhere deeper into the cells, echoing off the walls. The first three cells were shut, empty when Damen peered in. As he moved further in, though, he noticed the fourth cell door stood slightly ajar, the voice getting louder as he approached.
He put his arm out, stopping Jokaste slightly behind him. His sword up and ready, he inched forward until he could see inside the cell.
The first thing he saw was the back of a bulky man, sleeves rolled up his forearms, sharpening a large knife with slow, relishing strokes. He was speaking a steady stream of insults and explicit threats in a casual voice that sent chills up Damen's spine. Then Damen's eyes moved past him, to the figure against the wall.
Damen had seen horrifying things, had fought in blood-drenched battles and seen wounds that made men unrecognizable. He had watched, helpless, as his father died, had been held powerless while everyone who had ever been associated with him was slaughtered at his brother's behest. He thought he had prepared himself for the worst.
But at the sight in front of him, his vision went black at the edges, blood roaring in his ears. The breath was stolen from his lungs, and his heart faltered, stuttering in a painful, uneven rhythm. Everything faded around him, his world narrowing so that he could see nothing but the man he had been seeking for two days.
For a few, eternal seconds, Damen lost all sense of himself.
Laurent was strung up against the far wall, facing them, on a post almost identical to the one Damen himself had been lashed to back at the palace in Arles. He hung from his tied arms, feet a few inches above the stone, muscles slack. His shirt was open, laces trailing, and his bare chest was marbled with bruises, his pale skin displaying them like spilled ink across parchment. Several long cuts intersected the bruises, tracing along his ribs and stomach.
Worst of all, Damen saw with a hard fury that knotted together with horror, there was a knife sheathed to the hilt in his shoulder. The entire right side of his white shirt was dyed crimson with his blood.
Laurent's chin was resting on his chest, rising slightly with his ragged breaths. His hair was darkened with sweat, clinging to his neck and face in tangles. Blood from his shoulder had matted a few strands on the right side, turning gold to rust.
Damen couldn't see the blue of his eyes. That was what, in the end, pushed him over the edge.
Before the man sharpening the knife could even turn halfway at the sound of Damen bursting into the cell, Damen had run him through with a quick, powerful thrust of his sword, tearing through his stomach. A terrifying part of Damen rose up, telling him that this man didn't deserve a quick death, that the pain he inflicted upon Laurent should be returned to him tenfold. With effort, Damen wrestled the feeling down. He let the man fall to the ground, writhing in agony, his hands fumbling in vain to staunch the heavy flow of blood.
With shock, Damen recognized the man—it was Govart. Fresh rage burned through his blood. How could anyone have let this corrupt, depraved man into a cell alone with Laurent? The fear of what Govart would have done...what he might have done...
Damen turned to Laurent, dropping his sword with a clang and stepping forward until he was close enough to reach out. With the gentlest touch he possessed, Damen slid his fingers under Laurent's chin, tipping his head up towards him. A sliver of blue was visible through his lashes, and Damen cupped Laurent's bruised cheek as Laurent slowly opened his eyes to look at Damen.
There was none of the sharp intelligence that usually glittered there. It was as if Damen were looking at him through a long tunnel, as if Laurent were buried far inside himself, pain an almost visible veil between them.
“Laurent,” Damen breathed, his chest so tight he thought it would tear. Words wouldn't come. There was nothing he could say that could make sense of this, and so Damen just repeated the only thing that mattered. “Laurent.”
Slowly, so very slowly, Damen watched as Laurent pulled himself to awareness. Recognition filled his eyes, then, accompanied by a small frown, something that looked like confusion.
“Damen?” Laurent's voice was sandpaper, rough with pain.
Damen nodded. “Yes.”
The frown deepened. “Have you always been so tall?”
Damen breathed an unsteady laugh, shaking his head slightly. “We need to get you out of here,” he said, looking up at the ropes that bound Laurent's arms.
He looked back down as Laurent's eyes fluttered shut, his head leaning heavily into Damen's palm. “I—I always thought that it—that the pain was supposed to go away—when you died,” Laurent rasped, the words interrupted by ragged breaths.
The words pierced Damen. “You aren't dying,” he said fiercely. “Look at me.”
With what looked like all the strength he had left, Laurent opened his eyes. Some of the sharpness gradually returned to Laurent's gaze as it wandered over Damen's face. “You're—I'm not—you're here?” he breathed.
“Yes,” Damen said, his words a ringing command. “I'm here, so you have to stay with me, do you understand?”
A loud, strangled grunt followed quickly by the ring of iron on stone shocked Damen out of the moment, and he spun, reaching down to the sword that he had dropped. Halfway down, he stopped, unable to quite process what he was looking at.
Govart was much closer than Damen had originally left him, now only a few feet away. His eyes stared lifelessly to the side. The knife he had been holding had fallen from his outstretched hand, and blood flowed, not only from the wound Damen had inflicted, but also from the new, deep cut at his throat.
Jokaste was standing beside him, staring with revulsion down at him. She looked at her bloodied sword, then unceremoniously wiped it on Govart's shirt. “Swords,” she said with disgust.
Damen was still frozen where he had bent down to pick up his own sword. Jokaste looked over at him.
“I really would have thought that you had learned by now not to turn your back on your enemies unless you've finished the job,” she told Damen. “He would have had his knife in your back while you whispered sweet nothings into your Prince's ear.”
Damen slowly straightened. “Thank you,” he said after a long, stunned moment.
“I didn't do it for you,” she replied with disdain. But she wouldn't quite meet his eyes. “As touching as this reunion is, you may want to hurry up. We won't be left alone down here forever.”
Damen turned back to Laurent, who had leaned his head back against the wall, watching through heavy eyelids. Damen picked up Govart's knife and leaned up to cut the bonds.
“Wait,” Laurent said hoarsely, before Damen could begin. “Take the knife out. You have to—” he jerked his head towards his right shoulder “—before my arm moves. It'll do too much damage if it twists.”
Damen blanched. He knew Laurent was right, but he hated the thought of how much agony it was going to cause. He was worried that Laurent had lost too much blood already, that the pain would make him pass out and he wouldn't wake up again.
“Damen.” Laurent locked him in place with his implacable gaze, his voice like gravel. “Do it.”
He looked at Laurent for a moment longer, then, with dread, dropped his eyes and began to cut long strips from his shirt. Without the blade, the wound would bleed freely. It was the first, most urgent problem. He tossed Govart's knife to the side. He would need both hands.
“Damen,” Laurent said, grinding out the word through clenched teeth.
Damen gathered the largest piece of torn fabric in his left hand, then took a deep breath, tensing his jaw as he wrapped his right around the hilt of the knife. Laurent couldn't keep back a low sound of pain at the slight movement of the blade.
Steeling himself one last time, Damen pulled the knife out, as smoothly and quickly as he could. In the same movement, he brought his left hand, bunched with fabric, to the wound and pressed hard. He let the knife clatter to the ground at his feet.
A jagged cry tore involuntarily from Laurent's throat, his head jerking back to hit the stone wall behind him. His eyes were closed, and the muscles in his neck were taut with pain. Damen longed to remove his hand, to give some relief, but the pressure he kept on the wound was the only thing that was keeping Laurent from bleeding out. He ground his teeth, watching as the white fabric in his hand slowly turned red.
A few agonizing minutes passed, and Laurent's shallow, sharp breaths slowly came back under his control. Damen could almost see Laurent's iron will exerting itself, unwilling to succumb to something so mundane as physical pain. Damen took the other strips of fabric and wrapped them clumsily around the fabric gathered beneath Damen's hand as tight as he could, holding the makeshift bandage in place. He tied a hard knot, drawing a poorly-repressed groan from Laurent.
Damen reached up and brushed a sweat-soaked tendril of hair out of Laurent's face before cradling his head gently between his hands. It took a few moments for Laurent to find the strength to open his eyes and look at Damen.
“That was only the second most painful thing you've ever done to me,” Laurent said with a ghost of a smile. It was a dark humor, hitting Damen hard, but Laurent had said it gently, and Damen returned the smile after only a moment of discomfort.
“Was the first when I called you 'sweetheart' and insulted your Akielon? Don't worry, it's improved a great deal since then,” Damen said, carefully sidestepping the truth they both knew. “Let's make a deal. I'll try not to make a habit of pulling knives out of you if you try not to make a habit of getting stabbed.”
Laurent pushed a short breath out, the closest he could get to a laugh. “It's not my fault. Apparently my personality naturally invites it,” he said.
Damen had once thought that exact thing.
He looked over his shoulder to Jokaste, who was staring at them as if they had both lost their minds.
“Do you talk this strangely in bed as well?” she asked, her brows pulled together in judgment.
“Why, what did you talk about while you were fucking him?” Laurent said with a hint of his usual edge. Damen took that as a good sign, even if he didn't care for the particular subject of conversation. “How good he would look in chains, perhaps?”
“Laurent,” Damen warned.
Jokaste considered Laurent for a moment, and Damen could swear there was a glint of delight in her eyes before she turned to him. “We could just leave him here, you know. You're asking for trouble with this one.”
“I'm used to trouble,” Damen said pointedly. “Now come over here and help me cut the ropes.”
He looked back at Laurent. Damen could see a fine tremor running through his muscles, the result of hours of exhaustion and pain. The effort of talking had visibly drained him, though he was doing his best to hide it.
“It's going to be painful,” he told Laurent softly.
“How unfortunate. I wonder what that will feel like—the last few days have been so pain-free,” Laurent said.
Damen raised his eyebrow at Laurent, who simply gazed back at him with mild blue eyes.
Jokaste had come up beside Damen, holding the knife. “Cut his injured arm down first,” he told her. Laurent's bare feet were several inches off the ground, and any weight that pulled on his wound would be excruciating.
“I'm going to hold you as motionless as possible,” he told Laurent. He waited, seeking permission. Laurent gave a shallow nod, and Damen wrapped his right arm around Laurent's waist, pressing Laurent tight between him and the wall. He used his weight to take Laurent's, lifting slightly. Laurent locked his jaw against the pressure on his bruises and cuts.
“It's occurring to me—” Laurent said, slightly breathless, “—that you are using this as an opportunity to take advantage of my compromised position.”
“Well, you did leave me to wake up all alone in your bed,” Damen replied. He reached up to support Laurent's injured arm, looking over at Jokaste and nodding. She began to saw through the thick rope. Damen looked back to Laurent. “It was very disappointing.”
Laurent's small smile was distracted. Damen knew he was fighting to press down the anticipation of the agony that was about to take him. Damen locked his eyes onto Laurent's, trying to hold his attention. “You know, I've never had someone go to such great lengths to get away from me. It's quite damaging to my reputation—and my ego.”
Laurent huffed out an amused breath. “Your ego need not be worried. As for your reputation—”
He broke off with a strangled cry as the last rope broke through, releasing his arm to Damen's steady hold. Damen lowered it gently but quickly, unwilling to draw out the pain longer than necessary. He draped Laurent's forearm over his shoulder, and felt Laurent grip tightly to the back of his shirt.
Laurent's weight was now almost entirely supported by Damen. The tremors in Laurent's body had deepened. Jokaste moved around to Laurent's left arm, taking the knife to the last of his bonds. His skin was covered in a thin sheen of sweat, and he was pale in a way that had nothing to do with his natural coloring. His right hand was a fist against Damen's back.
“Almost,” Damen murmured, leaning in to press his forehead to Laurent's. “Almost there.”
Laurent didn't reply, and a flood of fear welled up inside Damen. The last bond was severed, and Laurent's full weight was given over to him. He was prepared for it, as Laurent's other arm fell heavily to wrap around Damen's neck, a small sound escaping his lips. Though it wouldn't be as painful as the wounded one, his full weight had been hanging from his shoulders for countless hours. It would be no small discomfort for his arms to be freed.
Damen held him like that, pressed between his own body and the wall, for long minutes. Laurent's eyes were closed, his breaths shallow gasps as he gathered himself. Finally, he opened his eyes and nodded at Damen.
Slowly, gently, Damen moved away from the wall and allowed Laurent's body to slide down until his feet were beneath him. The moment Laurent attempted to hold his own weight, his knees buckled, and Damen tightened the grip that he had momentarily loosened around Laurent.
“Alright,” Damen reassured him. “I've got you.”
Laurent rested his head on Damen's chest, his breaths coming in pants, both hands fisted tightly in the fabric of Damen's shirt. “I just...need a minute,” he said quietly.
He was terrified of the answer, but he had to ask. “Laurent. Is there something else?” His throat burned around the words. “Did he—”
“No,” Laurent replied firmly, looking up to meet Damen's eyes. “Though he threatened it in no uncertain terms, and he likely would have gotten around to it if you hadn't rudely interrupted his fun.”
Rage sang through Damen, and he wished, coldly, that Govart wasn't already dead, so that he could kill him again.
“You were right,” Laurent said. “As you always are. I shouldn't have left the job half-done. I should have killed him. He was never going to let me humiliate him like that without retaliation. I just—I thought he had something on my uncle. I wanted it.”
“Whatever it was, we'll find another way to defeat your uncle,” Damen said. “Govart deserved what he got. Actually, he deserved much worse than what he got.”
“How barbaric of you.” Laurent's voice was lightly teasing.
Damen suddenly remembered that Jokaste was there, and turned to look at her. “We need a physician. Can you get one down here?”
Before she could respond, Laurent interrupted, his voice firm. “No.”
“What?” Damen asked, incredulous. “Laurent, you can't even stand. You have to—”
“No. It can wait.” It was not a request. Laurent looked over at Jokaste. “Aimeric. I need you to bring me Aimeric.”