Despite what he had told Guion, guilt gnawed deep in Damen's heart. It was true that Aimeric had made his own choices, that this had begun long before Damen had come to Vere, but it was the humiliation of his final failure, his inability to deliver Laurent to the Regent, that had pushed him over the edge. It had been his last desperate attempt to win back the Regent's affection. The words in Aimeric's letter had taken some time to fully understand—the thought of Guion allowing the Regent into his child's room, knowing full well what he would do, was such a violation of nature that Damen couldn't fully comprehend it.
He forced himself to remember the sight of Laurent down in the cells, the sound he had made when the blade had been wrenched from his shoulder, the roaring, blinding fear Damen had felt when Laurent had said he had wished for death. Aimeric had done that. He had pity for Aimeric—what had happened to him was truly horrific. But there came a time in every man's life that he had to make his own choices, and Aimeric had made all the wrong ones. His past did not excuse what he had done.
And yet Damen would never forget the exact color of his hair, curls burnished by the sunlight, as his mother threaded her fingers through it.
He turned to leave Guion and Loyse to their grief. As much as Damen disliked Guion, watching their pain was unbearable. Damen knew what it was to lose family. Death was a thief who stole from all.
It took a moment for him to realize that Laurent was no longer in the room.
The breeze that had been light in Aimeric's rooms was much stronger on the battlements. It caught the starburst banner, the fabric snapping as it unfurled in the wind. The sight of it sent a strange feeling through Damen—the symbol had, for so long, been a reminder of Auguste, of Damen's proud victory over Vere. Now, the sight of it filled him with a sense of rightness, and a different kind of pride. It belonged here, watching over the gentle hills of Fortaine, the blue and gold a shining beacon.
Laurent's fair hair was tangled from the wind, tousled in a slightly chaotic way that was rare to see on Laurent. He was facing away from Damen, braced against the rough stone of the battlement as he gazed out over the land.
Laurent did not look at him when he spoke. “I've told you, you don't have to follow me everywhere,” he said, his tone an echo of the cold, detached man he had once been.
“You'll forgive me,” Damen said, coming to stand beside Laurent. “The last time you wandered away, I had to come rescue you from a prison cell. I'd prefer not to have to do that again.”
Laurent still did not look at him, but Damen caught the ghost of a smile before it was gone again.
“How did you know I was here?”
“Well, under normal circumstances, I would have assumed you had gone riding. However, I suspect that riding a horse would be too painful for even you to ignore. Not that you didn't contemplate it, I'm sure.”
He was finally rewarded as Laurent turned to look at him, his gaze piercing, an inscrutable look gracing his delicate features.
“Am I right?”
Laurent was silent for a long time, clearly reluctant to admit it. “I may have considered it.”
“Without your usual refuge, I guessed that you would want to get as far away as possible. And this is where I would have come.” Damen paused. “If it makes you feel better, I did have to check a few other battlements before I found you.”
Laurent shook his head, the wry twist to his mouth not quite a smile. “I'm not sure if I like being so predictable. So—known.”
Damen moved closer, so that their arms were touching. He looked ahead, careful to keep his tone detached. If he made this too intimate, Laurent would shut him out.
“It wasn't our fault,” he said, and he felt Laurent's entire body tense beside him. He didn't look, but simply waited for Laurent's response.
“Yes,” Laurent finally said, and there was a warning in his voice. “I am aware.”
“It wasn't our fault,” Damen repeated, “and yet, if you are like me, there is some part of you that believes it was.”
Laurent said nothing.
“My head understands that Aimeric's fate was of his own design, and yet my heart whispers blame. And the truth is, perhaps Aimeric would still be alive if I hadn't come. If you hadn't escaped. If his plans had worked, he would have had no reason to do what he did.” Damen took a deep breath, loosening the tightness in his chest.
“But then I remember the sight of you, strung up on that wall.” Though he tried, he couldn't quite keep his voice even. He felt Laurent's hand twitch slightly beside his own. “I remember that Jord still believes a lie. I remember how easily he would have given you over to your uncle, for humiliation and death. And then the whispers quiet. Aimeric chose his path, as his father laid the stones of it for him to walk upon. It is not our guilt to carry.”
He chanced a glance over to Laurent, who was still looking out over the battlement, his muscles taut. He let the silence stretch between them, for Laurent to break when he was ready. The wind tugged at Damen's clothes, ran its brisk fingers through his hair.
“My uncle has laid waste to many lives.” Laurent's voice was quiet, almost low enough to be carried away on the wind. “And I strongly doubt he has ever stood upon a battlement, questioning his guilt. It would serve his purposes well, for us to be burdened with blame, especially if it wasn't truly ours to bear.”
Damen kept his tone neutral. “It would be a shame, then, to give him what he wants.”
That finally earned a small smile from Laurent as he met Damen's gaze. “Yes,” he said. “It would.”
Damen knew he could not fully dispel the feelings that Laurent had internalized from this, knew that the sight of Aimeric cradled in his mother's arms would be emblazoned upon Laurent's memory as permanently as it was upon Damen's. But he hoped that, when the whispers came, Damen's voice would be alongside them to press them back down.
“It is not such a bad thing, you know,” Damen said, “to be known.”
Laurent's gaze was electric. “I suppose that depends on who is doing the knowing.” His face softened. “But I don't think I mind it so much, when it's you.”
Judging it safe to do so, he reached over, covering Laurent's hand with his own. After only a brief hesitation, Laurent turned his palm up, allowing their fingers to thread together. Laurent turned back to look south, towards Akielos, towards his uncle. Damen continued to look at Laurent, his sharp profile outlined against the sky.
Movement caught Damen's attention, and he looked past Laurent, focusing upon the horizon as he tried to understand what he was seeing. Laurent, sensing the change, followed his gaze. They watched as it grew, spreading across the hill, a red flow that reminded Damen unpleasantly of Aimeric's blood on the white marble.
“That's no Veretian army,” Laurent said, and Damen realized that had been his unspoken fear. Red was the color of the Regency.
It was also the color of Akielos.
Against all odds, Nikandros was riding back to his King.
Damen and Laurent stood on the stone dais in the courtyard as the gate was raised. They heard the steady beat of hooves first, growing louder as the army approached.
Nikandros was the first through the gate, riding gracefully into the courtyard, red cloak streaming behind him. Damen felt a weight lift from him—he hadn't realized just how worried he had been that he had seen his friend for the last time.
Nikandros dismounted, climbing the stone stairs before kneeling in front of Damen and Laurent in a bow. Damen walked forth, reaching out a hand to pull him to his feet.
“Nikandros, my friend. Welcome. I am truly glad to see you.”
“Damen,” Nikandros said, clasping Damen's shoulder. “The gladness is mine, to see you alive.” He looked at Laurent, and, though it looked like it was difficult, he nodded towards him. “To see you both alive.”
Laurent smiled airily. “Nikandros,” he said, inclining his head in greeting. “How pleasant to see you again. You must have more skill than I originally attributed to you, to have succeeded in taking Ravenel. It would seem that you Akielons are less useless than you appear.”
Nikandros's smile was fixed in place. “Perhaps my last sentiment was expressed too soon.”
Damen sighed. It had taken them all of two minutes to go from a joyful reunion to sharp animosity. He turned to look out over the rest of the men who had followed Nikandros. Their numbers were visibly reduced, though not nearly as much as Damen would have guessed after taking the crown jewel of the Veretian border.
His eyes were drawn to a group of men in Veretian clothing, and he was pleased to see that the familiar faces were all there. His gaze landed on Jord, and his cheer was quickly replaced by dread as he remembered that Jord knew nothing of Aimeric's betrayal and death. He was probably still worried about Aimeric's absence, guessing nothing about the horrific turn of events that had occurred in the last few days.
He tore himself from the thoughts, turning back to Nikandros.
“Let's get you and your men settled. We have much to talk about.”
“So Ravenel is yours,” Damen said with a smile.
Nikandros was sitting across from Damen and Laurent in their rooms. He had told them that Jord would join them once he had overseen the lodging of the army. Damen and Laurent had shared a long look, which had not gone unnoticed by Nikandros, though he did not ask about it.
“Ravenel is yours,” Nikandros corrected. “You asked me for it. Though it was not easy to win.”
“Please,” Damen said, “enlighten us. How did you accomplish it?”
Nikandros took a long drink from his cup before placing it, empty, on the table between them. “It would not have been done without Jord, and the rest of your Veretians,” he said, looking at Laurent. “It took some convincing for me to agree to the plan they set forth. It is not the way that things are done in Akielos.”
Laurent raised one imperious eyebrow. “Competently?”
Damen aimed a light kick at Laurent, who was seated in his usual sprawl on the sitting couch next to Damen, a goblet of water dangling from his delicate fingers. He looked over at Damen, gesturing as if to say What?
“Honestly,” Nikandros responded with a glare. “We prefer to fight like men, not thieves. Though I'll admit that we would not have succeeded any other way.” His tone was grudging. “It was quite clever. Two-thirds of our troop posed as an Akielon insurgence from across the border. It drew out most of their garrison, riding to the south to face us. Once they were engaged, Jord and the rest of the company—under His Highness's banner—rode in. The men who had been left behind at Ravenel were not entirely foolish. They sent an envoy, to confirm the Prince was in their midst.”
“And how exactly did you convince them of that, when the Prince was in a cell in Fortaine?”
“He is not the only young, lithe, blond man in the company. Luckily, in your haste to depart, you left behind some of your clothing, rich enough that it could only belong to a prince,” Nikandros said to Laurent. “The men of Ravenel saw the blond hair, the expensive fabric, and the haughty arrogance, and assumed there could only be one man with those characteristics. The ruse would not have held up under further scrutiny—the Prince's face is impossible to replicate. As is his tongue.”
“I'll take that as a compliment,” Laurent said with a lazy smile.
“I wouldn't,” Nikandros replied, matching it with one of his own.
Damen cleared his throat, breaking their standoff. “And then?”
“They raised the gate, and by the time they realized their mistake, the fort was won. It would seem that most of the men and women of the fort are loyal to the crown—their allegiance shifted as soon as they saw the banner.”
“The starburst means something here on the border,” Damen said, looking over at Laurent with a private smile. Laurent met his gaze, his features softening for just a moment.
“Once the fort was secured, Jord gathered as many men as he could and rode out again, coming up behind Ravenel's force. They were unprepared to have to fight on a second front—their formations broke, and the battle was ours. We lost some men, but far fewer than we would have lost had we attempted to attack Ravenel directly. Most of the enemy soldiers yielded once they knew that they faced the Prince's Guard. I believe that they are loyal to you, though I can't fathom why.”
“And Lord Touars?” Laurent asked, ignoring the taunt.
“The Lord of Ravenel? He is dead,” Nikandros said. “I killed him myself. I hope he wasn't a friend of yours.”
Laurent smiled. “Not exactly.”
“Well,” Damen said, running a hand through his hair. “I am impressed, and grateful. I knew I was giving you a near impossible task, to take Ravenel. My trust was not misplaced.”
“I cannot tell you how relieved I was to receive your messenger,” Nikandros said, refilling his goblet of wine. “You rode to Toulour, alone, and three days later, Fortaine is yours. How is it possible?”
“We had a little assistance,” Laurent said with a devilish smile. “You will never guess—”
“We will get to that in due course,” Damen said pointedly, interrupting before Laurent could mention Jokaste. He wanted to get through at least one cup of wine before Nikandros tried to kill him.
“Very well,” Laurent said. The look in his eyes told Damen that he would not be denied his fun. He swept his hand between them, gesturing for Damen to begin.
Damen was in the middle of telling Nikandros about his retreat from Toulour when the doors to their room opened. Expecting Jord, Damen was not quick enough to recognize the long blonde hair, the sweep of silks, before Jokaste was in their midst.
Shock was not a strong enough description for the reaction from Nikandros, who was on his feet and moving angrily towards Jokaste in the blink of an eye. Luckily, Laurent was quicker than Damen. He moved between Nikandros and Jokaste, placing a firm hand on Nikandros's chest to stop him. It was a mark of the severity of the situation that Nikandros didn't seem to notice or care.
“Hello, Nikandros,” Jokaste said, her voice honeyed. “How enchanting to see you. It's been ages.”
Damen was reminded forcibly of the moment that Nikandros had met Laurent—he was overtaken by the same speechless anger, his face red, his fists clenched tight. Jokaste, in contrast, was relaxed, clearly enjoying the reaction. Damen closed his eyes briefly—between Laurent and Jokaste, he would never have a moment's rest.
“I see you've met,” Laurent said. “How wonderful. Do you remember how I mentioned that we had assistance?”
Laurent turned to Jokaste, affecting a pout. “You ruined my surprise, Lady Jokaste. I was so looking forward to being the one to tell him. Though I will say that your entrance did provide drama that my reveal would have lacked.” He inclined his head in admiration.
Definitely not helping.
Damen shook himself out of his shock, finally taking the situation in hand. He walked over to Nikandros, placing a strong hand on his shoulder to guide him back to his seat.
“Damen, are you out of your fucking mind?” Nikandros spluttered.
“Sit.” Damen put as much authority into the command as he possessed, and, reluctantly, Nikandros obeyed.
“I've seen you jump from a second story window, trick the Captain of the Guard into a swordfight, and attempt to wrestle a fully-grown bull, but this is by far the stupidest—”
“I strongly suggest you don't finish that sentence,” Damen growled, though, privately, he had expected Nikandros to be saying far worse.
“Damen, this...snake of a woman is the reason that you no longer have a throne! That you were in chains! That you ever had to kneel at his feet!” Nikandros gestured wildly towards Laurent.
“You do not have to tell me what she did,” Damen said, anger bleeding into his voice, “nor do you need to tell me what I endured because of it. I am well aware.”
The edge in the words finally reined in some of Nikandros's anger. Though it clearly pained him, he took a deep breath, swallowing down the words that he wanted to say.
Damen turned to Jokaste. “Sit,” he ordered again, gesturing to a chair as far away from Nikandros as possible. He couldn't help the withering glare that accompanied it. Jokaste walked calmly over to the chair, draping her silks elegantly around her as she sat.
Deeming the situation under control—though just barely—he returned to his own seat, brushing Laurent's shoulder on his way.
“Pleased?” He said, glowering, low enough that only Laurent could hear.
“Oh, quite,” Laurent said, a blithe smile pulling at the corners of his mouth. Damen made a silent promise that Laurent would pay for this later.
Once everyone was settled, Damen looked across at Nikandros, who was glaring at him, clearly restraining himself, with effort, from continuing his tirade.
“Nik. She's the only reason I got into Fortaine. The only reason Laurent is alive.”
“And I should thank her for that? I wouldn't call that a positive outcome.”
Damen pushed out a heavy breath. It was going to be a long afternoon.
“Alright. This is how this conversation is going to go. You,” he said, pointing at Nikandros, “are going to listen and not speak until you've heard everything. You,” he said, pointing at Jokaste, “are going to stay out of it and not speak at all. And you,” he said, looking at Laurent, “are going to attempt to not make things more difficult. Understand?”
He received three confirmations of varying acceptance.
Picking up where he had left off, Damen continued his retelling of events, ending with their discovery of Aimeric's death that morning. It was more of a struggle than he would have anticipated, reliving that hour so soon. It would be infinitely worse when he was forced to tell Jord. He pushed that out of his mind for now.
Nikandros looked as though he hadn't slept for days. Damen felt for him—the sheer volume of information that he had received in the hour since his arrival was staggering. Damen watched as he attempted to deal with it all.
“The Regent is in Ios,” he finally said. It was not quite a question.
“And we are staying here.”
Nikandros leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. His gaze was serious, searching. “I don't understand you,” he said, speaking as if Laurent and Jokaste were not present. “You are not the Damianos I knew.”
“No,” Damen said simply. “I'm not. The Damianos you knew died in Ios when he was made a slave. But that does not mean that I will let the Regent take Akielos. Nik, I am still the man that my father taught me to be. I would die for Akielos, without hesitation. But rushing in with only brute strength will do nothing against this enemy.”
“So what do you propose we do?”
“We stay here, and come up with a plan to face the Regent. A real plan. We gather as much support as we can. And when the time is right, we march south.”
Nikandros watched him, his mouth twisted sourly. “You are my King, Damianos. I would follow you to the bitter end. But I implore you to look past your recent...entanglements.” He glanced over at Laurent, making his meaning plain. “If you truly believe that this is what is best for Akielos, then I will raise no further objections to it. However, I caution you to set your heart aside. Think about what your father would have done.”
“My father is dead, Nikandros,” Damen said quietly. “I am the King now. And I have too much blood on my hands to strike blindly. It is my responsibility to Akielos and its people to use every weapon at my disposal. Including unlikely allies and unexpected strategies.”
Nikandros worked his jaw, his eyes never leaving Damen's face. After several long moments, he sighed, looking down and rubbing his neck. “Very well,” he said, rising to his feet. “I stand with you, as always. Now, if I may take my leave, I need to check in on my men.”
Damen nodded and, with one last searing glance at Jokaste, Nikandros turned to leave. At the door, he paused, then turned back to them.
“I have one last question. Aimeric, the Lord's son...he was....was he the same Aimeric that Jord speaks of?”
Damen nodded, slowly.
Nikandros let out a deep breath, his eyes lowering. He nodded once, then, without a backward glance, he swept out of the room.