Laurent found Damen some time later on the balcony attached to their rooms. He had been staring absently at the horizon as the sun sank closer to its edge, marking another day done, another sunset closer to when he and Laurent would either regain their thrones or die trying. He thought with an ache of the entire day they had spent in bed, time theirs to waste, how the world outside seemed to fade away. Now it felt like they couldn't escape it as it hurtled towards them.
Laurent leaned his elbows on the railing, following Damen's gaze.
“As lovely as this is, I suspect you didn't come here for the view,” he said.
“I needed some fresh air,” Damen said without looking at him.
“And I suppose that Jokaste announcing that she is carrying Kastor's child had nothing to do with it.”
Damen didn't reply.
“It bothers you,” Laurent said, not quite a question.
Damen looked over at him, too tired to lie. “It bothers me.”
Laurent looked away. “Do you still love her?”
“I—of course not,” Damen said, a little offended that Laurent would ask that, after all they had been through. “There is nothing left between us. In all honesty, I'm not sure if what we had was even love. It's just—” He broke off, trying to figure out how to explain the complicated knot in his stomach. He ran a hand through his hair. “It's not jealousy, not in the way that you are thinking. It's just strange, to see a future that was once going to be mine, playing out in front of me, but with my brother in my place.”
“Jealousy is not a feeling that I'm overly familiar with,” Laurent said. “The only time I've ever felt it was in the simple jealousy of a child, when Auguste would run off with his friends that were his age and leave me behind.” He paused. “Though I'll admit that it's possible I'm beginning to feel it now.”
Damen turned to face him fully, wanting him to understand. “I do not wish the child was mine, and I do not wish to be with Jokaste,” he said firmly. He reached out and cupped Laurent's cheek in his hand. “What we had—it was nothing like this. Like being with you.”
Laurent's brow was furrowed in confusion. “Then why are you troubled by it?”
Damen sighed, dropping his hand to his side. “I suppose—it's very real, suddenly. It is the final, incontrovertible proof of what she did. Of what they stole from me. I was so focused on finding my way home, on taking back Akielos, I didn't allow myself to dwell upon what they had done. But this...”
Laurent nodded. “When my uncle poisoned my horse during the hunt, it was as though something had shifted. I had known, objectively, that he wanted the throne, but I still hadn't fully accepted that he meant to kill me. It was...disorienting.”
“Disorienting,” Damen agreed. He turned to look back out over the slowly darkening sky, leaning on the balustrade. “I think I would have liked to be an uncle,” he said quietly after a moment. “In another life.”
A long, quiet moment stretched between them, warm and sweet and heavy as molasses.
“And a father? Would you ever want children of your own?” Laurent asked, breaking the silence, his casual tone betrayed by the glance he threw at Damen before looking away.
“I'm flattered, but I think we would have difficulty conceiving,” Damen said lightly, deliberately misinterpreting Laurent's words. It earned him an admonishing blue glare, but he was rewarded with a twitch of Laurent's mouth as he repressed a smile.
A sudden vision of it flared to life in his head—a small child with blond hair, bright as a flame, running happily away, giggling as Laurent caught up to him and swept him into his arms. Damen teaching him to fight once he was old enough to hold a sword, Laurent teaching him to read. Damen thought of his own father, how much he had admired him, wanted to be him.
Or a girl, sweet and lovely and graceful, but with the strength and fortitude of Hypermenestra, who had been Damen's mother in all but name. She had shown Damen a type of wisdom that his father did not possess—how to be kind, how to understand others, how to use diplomacy in place of brute strength. Damen would pass all of that down to any daughter of his. And he would teach her how to fight, as he would a son, traditions be damned. Laurent could teach her to ride, to enjoy the finer things in life, to wield a tongue as sharp as a knife. And one day, she would be a queen as beloved and fair as Damen imagined his birth mother, Egeria, to have been.
“Damen?” Laurent's voice pulled him back to the present, and he realized he had been staring at Laurent while his imagination carried him away.
“Perhaps one day,” he responded, serious now. “When we can offer a world worth inheriting.”
Laurent's face softened as he nodded slowly. “Then that is what we shall fight for.”
A messenger had been dispatched after their decision had been made, carrying their threats—only vaguely pretending to be invitations—to Kastor and the Regent. Laurent had drafted the missive:
I believe I have something you want.
Guion has the most interesting tales about you—I would hate for them to spread.
Meet us at Marlas.
Bring the falsely-crowned King of Akielos—Lady Jokaste would very much like to be reunited with him.
Nikandros had sent riders to Marlas to bring word of their imminent arrival and to allow them time to prepare. It was no small task to host one member of royalty, let alone a King, a Crown Prince, and their entire army. They would stay at Fortaine long enough to receive word back from Ios, then march south. It made Damen restless, to be forced to wait, but there was nothing to be done about it.
Jokaste's revelation during their meeting had thrown the entire room around her into chaos, though now that the initial shock had worn off, Damen thought he understood her actions more clearly. Carrying Kastor's child, an heir who would solidify his hold on the throne, was a threat the Regent would not tolerate. Had Jokaste been in Ios when the Regent had arrived, Damen had no doubt that a mysterious accident would have befallen her within days.
Damen remembered whispered conversations, laying in the moonlight together, the silk sheets tangled around them. Jokaste had been open about her desire to have a child one day, and she and Damen had spoken in low voices of what it would be like, though in truth Damen had not truly thought of it in any seriousness. In his mind, it would be years until he took the throne from his father, and having an heir was simply another responsibility expected of him, to be considered when the time came.
But for Jokaste—Damen knew, in his heart, that Jokaste would go to great lengths to protect any child she bore. It was why she was helping them, her best path forward to safety. Damen thought briefly about the fact that, if he returned to his throne, the child would be a threat to his rule. If he—or she—grew older and decided to challenge him, it would have at least the semblance of a legitimate claim. Jokaste was drawn to power, and her loyalty to Damen was not such that she may not be tempted to put her child on the throne in Ios.
Damen dismissed the thought, though he could not shake the shadow of it from his heart. He had far too many obstacles as it was to try to face the ones of his future. The time may come for him to worry about it, but that time was not now. He put it out of his mind.
To stave off boredom, improve morale, and keep the men physically active, Akielon games were set into motion, with Damen and Laurent presiding over them side by side. Competitions of wrestling, sparring, and even the okton claimed most of the hours of the days, with feasts in the evenings. It had the appearance of leisure, a strange contrast to the constant thrum of war that laid just underneath. It set Damen on edge, though he put his best effort into remaining calm and amiable.
Though Damen participated in several of the games himself—each win met with an enormous roar of approval from his men—Laurent declined several invitations (most from a taunting Nikandros), citing his distinct lack of familiarity with Akielon rules and insisting that he enjoyed watching far more than he enjoyed participating. Nikandros responded that it was probably for the best—his fair skin would almost certainly burn within minutes of its exposure to the sunlight.
On the third day after their messenger had departed, however, Makedon approached them where they sat on a raised dais beneath a tent. He had been quietly aloof since his arrival at Fortaine, and indeed had spoken very little since Damen had allied himself with Laurent. His disapproval, nevertheless, was clear in the set of his jaw and the tense lines around his mouth. One of the strongest generals in Akielos, he was also one of the most traditional. Veretian allies were not something he could accept easily.
“Your Highness,” he said, with a mocking bow to Laurent. “I have noticed that you have not participated in any of our games.”
Damen felt a faint trickle of dread, wondering how Laurent would slither his way out of this. For him to refuse a direct challenge, which Damen was sure would follow soon, would be seen by Makedon as a dire insult, one that could cost them dearly if he decided to withdraw his support. But Laurent was still injured, a fact that none of the men knew, and Laurent wanted to keep it that way. It was out of the question for him to wield a sword.
“I've been quite enjoying the skill that the Akielons have displayed,” Laurent said with a respectful nod of his head. “And I'll admit that I don't quite grasp the rules of the okton or wrestling. They are not sports we are familiar with in Vere, and I'm afraid I would make a fool of myself if I attempted them here.”
It was a diplomatic, courteous response, and for a moment Damen thought it would be enough. Makedon, however, was not so easily dismissed. “In Akielos, royalty must fight alongside the men that they rule,” he said, his tone borderline impolite. “Our King has proven himself worthy by participating in these games. Perhaps you believe that it is below you, to mingle with commoners.”
“Far from it,” Laurent said, and though his voice was smooth, Damen heard the edge beneath it. “I would be honored to test myself against such men.”
“Then prove it. The okton and wrestling may not be quite your style, but surely they have swords in Vere.”
Damen leaned forward, anger at Makedon's dismissive tone rising through his chest, but was halted by Laurent's steady, cool hand on his arm. Damen settled back down, though when Makedon looked over at him Damen made it clear that he was on thin ground. There was a long silence as Laurent regarded Makedon.
“Very well,” he finally said, and Damen looked over at him, disbelieving. Laurent did not meet his eyes. “The sword then. And who would you have me fight?”
“King Damianos is our finest warrior,” Makedon said with a cold smile, “but I think he would soften his blows for you. I would be honored to spar with you myself, Your Highness.”
Damen, unable to allow this to continue, opened his mouth to tell Makedon the truth, that Laurent could not bear to hold a sword. His words were silenced in his throat by cool blue eyes, sharp and unyielding, and a tiny shake of a golden head. Despite the panic starting to rise within him, Damen held his tongue, barely. He had to believe that Laurent knew what he was doing.
“It would be my pleasure, Makedon,” Laurent said, his agreeable tone a direct contrast to Makedon's open disrespect. Makedon's smile was sharp. His plan was obvious—unveil the Veretian Prince as the soft, untested youth that he was and embarrass him in front of their armies. Under normal circumstances, Damen would be amused at the thought of Laurent revealing his skill with a sword, shocking the Akielons as Damen had been shocked. But with Laurent's right shoulder still injured, there was no way for this to end but in disaster.
As Laurent readied himself, removing his tightly-laced jacket to reveal the looser white undershirt he wore beneath it, Damen sat in despair, his eyes boring into Laurent. Without looking up, Laurent loosened his sleeves, rolling them up to his forearms, and said, “If you have a more suitable suggestion, I'm amenable to alternatives.” Damen scoured his mind, which seemed to have gone completely blank, and found nothing.
At Damen's silence, Laurent looked up at him. “That's what I arrived at, as well,” he said, and there was no hint of Damen's anxiety in his voice. “At least we know I'm resilient to being stabbed. Besides, we have plenty of salve.” Damen gaped at him, unable to believe he was joking at a time like this, and then he was gone.
Laurent walked into the sparring ring to a mixture of good-natured cheers and less-than-friendly jeers. He seemed to hear none of it, circling calmly around the space, getting a feel for how much room he had to work with and the quality of the footing. Makedon was stationary, facing him and watching him with a barely-disguised predatory gleam in his eyes. Damen saw that Jord and Nikandros were standing next to each other, leaning on the fence that enclosed the ring. They were at ease—though they knew Laurent had been injured, they didn't know the specific damage, and seemed unconcerned about his safety.
Laurent, having apparently found no faults in the sparring ring, turned to Makedon and nodded. A soldier rushed up to Laurent, clearly uncertain how to act in the presence of the foreign prince, and offered him a sword. Damen watched as Laurent reached over, wrapping his slender fingers around the hilt and lifting it from the soldier's hands.
To casual observers, Laurent's motions would appear smooth and nonchalant. But Damen was never a casual observer when it came to Laurent. He saw the slight clench of Laurent's jaw, the hard, taut line of his spine as the weight of the sword pulled on his shoulder and Laurent attempted to resist it. He knew as if it were his own body that Laurent was in pain, and the fight had not even begun. The first clash of steel against steel would be enough to completely incapacitate him and send his sword flying.
Damen made a decision then—if it were to come to that, at the first sound of pain from Laurent, he would step in, consequences be damned. He would not see Laurent harmed, not again, even if it cost him Makedon's loyalty, even if it called Laurent's competency into question, even if it compromised everything they were working for.
Laurent and Makedon were circling each other slowly, their swords raised and ready. Though he was too far away to hear their low-pitched voices, Damen could tell, from the movement of their lips, that they were talking. Makedon was no longer smiling. Damen could only imagine what Laurent was saying, to make him look like that.
Quick as the strike of a serpent, Makedon moved, thrusting his sword towards where Laurent had, until a moment ago, been standing. In the flash of steel, Damen had not seen Laurent twist deftly out of its path, but suddenly he was standing behind Makedon. He did not attack, as he should have, but simply stood there, an infuriatingly calm smile on his face.
It had the effect he wanted—Makedon, enraged, moved again, his blade slicing in a deadly arc towards Laurent's neck. Laurent stepped closer to Makedon, then, in the same movement, ducked his head and spun to his left, then away again. Makedon's sword carved through empty air. A third attack, then a fourth, each of which Laurent evaded with grace and dexterity.
It was not the way men fought in Akielos. Their blades had not even met yet, and Damen wondered if he planned to win simply by driving Makedon crazy with annoyance. It certainly wouldn't be the first time he had pushed men to madness.
Indeed, Damen could see the red flush of anger on Makedon's face even from his distance. Makedon's voice rang out over the crowd. “Do all Veretians fight like snakes, content to slither away, or is it just you, Princeling? Fight me like a man, if you are one!”
Damen heard murmurs of agreement from the mostly-Akielon onlookers and felt the disaster looming. But Laurent, beautiful, maddening Laurent, simply smiled wider and bowed his head towards Makedon. Damen privately commended Makedon's restraint, as it was clear he wanted to kill Laurent right then and there. It was a feeling that Damen remembered well.
Laurent's calm, clear voice, pitched to carry as Makedon's had been, responded. “If that is what you desire, Makedon,” he said, and then he moved.
And Damen, who would have sworn over his father's grave that Laurent couldn't possibly be capable of surprising him further than he already had, watched as Laurent slid his blade to his left hand and attacked in earnest.
His movements were the same elegant, complex blows that Damen had seen him use with his right hand. If he hadn't seen Laurent fight before with his own eyes, if he hadn't fought him himself, it would be impossible to tell that Laurent had not been left-handed his entire life.
Without realizing it, Damen had shifted forward until he was barely seated on the edge of his chair, his entire body drawn to the sight before him. The weight of his worry had left him, and in its place was only exhilaration, a singing joy that ran through his veins. The dull roar of approval from the crowd washed over him, all traces of mockery gone, the sheer entertainment of the fight making admirers of them all. Nikandros was as shocked as any of them, though Jord showed only pride as he watched his Prince. If this had been a secret to him as well, it didn't show on his face.
Laurent's blade flashed in the sun, nearly too quick to follow, and Makedon parried each stroke. Though he was clearly as stunned as anyone else, he didn't have the luxury of dwelling on it—the fury of Laurent's blows required every ounce of his attention. A lesser swordsman would have been overwhelmed already, and only Makedon's experience and skill allowed him to come away from the first exchange without injury. They separated, pausing as they caught their breaths.
Chest heaving, Makedon regarded Laurent with new respect, and he warily looked Laurent up and down. Damen could see him adjusting his expectations to match what he now knew, what others, Damen included, had also learned the hard way—that Laurent's lithe body and fine, fair skin were a perfect disguise for the skill and strength that hid beneath. That Laurent was one of the best swordsmen any of them would ever face.
A flash of steel was the only warning before they met again, a flurry of blows that rang across the grounds and echoed on the stone. They were more evenly matched now, Makedon meeting Laurent stroke for stroke. At the end of the second exchange, they broke off again, neither with the clear upper hand.
They fought for much longer than these games usually went, and Damen swore that he saw a small smile on Makedon's face once or twice. It had been a long time since anyone had marked themselves as his equal, and despite how he felt about Veretians, there was a joy that came with testing your strength against a worthy opponent. Damen himself was the only one who Makedon had never bested, and they hadn't sparred in years.
In the end, it could have been either of them that stood victorious—but what Makedon didn't know was that Laurent had been practicing specifically against Akielon fighting styles his entire life. Makedon stepped into a move that Damen recognized, clearly thinking that Laurent would not be familiar with it and therefore not know how to block it. Instead, Laurent stepped into its countermove, matching him step for step, and then, with a complicated twist of his wrist, Makedon's sword was ripped from his grip, coming to rest in the dirt three feet away.
Laurent stood with the tip of his sword against Makedon's throat for a few long seconds as the onlookers bellowed their approval, his breath coming fast, and then he lowered his sword, turning to hand it off to the same soldier who had given it to him at the start of the match. There was a new gleam in the soldier's eye as he looked at Laurent, one that reminded Damen distinctly of how Torveld had looked at him back in Arles. Damen frowned.
Out of the corner of his eye, Damen saw Nikandros scowl, then reach into his chiton for a small handful of coins, which he dropped into Jord's outstretched palm. Jord pocketed them with a self-satisfied little smile, then grasped Nikandros's shoulder sympathetically.
Laurent turned back to Makedon, who had not moved. Damen truly did not know how Makedon would take the loss—he was a man of honor, but losing to a Veretian would be a wound to his pride that he would not soon forget. Damen could see the conflict that was tearing through him.
Finally, Makedon stepped forward, offering his hand to Laurent, who took it. Damen could hear his deep voice even over the noise of the crowd.
“That was—a well-fought match,” he said, his tone a mix of frustration and grudging admiration. “It has been several years since anyone has bested me with a sword. Your style is unlike any I've ever seen in another.”
“Thank you,” Laurent told him, the picture of a gracious winner. “It was truly my honor. If all of Akielos's warriors were as skillful as you, my father would have thought twice before meeting you in battle.”
“And if all of Vere's warriors were as skillful as you, perhaps you would have won.”
It was a risky compliment, and indeed, there was a moment's pause where silence stretched between them, taut and sharp. Then Laurent laughed, and the tension broke as Makedon clapped Laurent on the shoulder, his own laughter booming across the ring.
And, unbelievably, just like that, Laurent had won over the most uncompromising general in Damen's army.
“Stop scowling at me.”
“I'm not,” Damen said with a frown, which, admittedly, may have been a bit contradictory of him. But really.
“You know I had no choice. Would you have preferred me to insult him and lose half of our army by refusing?” Laurent hissed in a breath as Damen pressed the wet cloth to his shoulder.
He had reopened his wound, as Damen suspected he might have when Laurent had walked out of the sparring ring and quickly put his jacket back on, one-handed. He had brushed aside Damen's attempt to look at it, instead leading the way silently to their room, Damen one pace behind him. Once there, he had allowed Damen to remove the jacket, revealing the crimson that had begun to seep into the white of his undershirt.
“I would prefer that you didn't insist upon bleeding every other day,” Damen said stubbornly, rinsing the red out of the cloth in the basin of water on the table beside him. The truth was that Laurent had, as usual, found himself in less-than-ideal circumstances and twisted them to work in his favor, and he had probably saved whatever chance either of them had at regaining their thrones.
But that didn't mean Damen had to admit it.
He wrung out the cloth, then pressed it, gentler this time, against Laurent's skin. He was flushed with exertion and pain, his hair tangled with sweat. Damen looked up at him, feeling his anger—which had not really been anger in the first place—melt away. Damen sighed.
“I just don't like seeing you hurt,” he said. “He could have done real damage, if you hadn't been good enough to keep him away from your shoulder.”
“But I was good enough,” Laurent said, his eyes clear and steady on Damen.
Damen pushed out an amused, exasperated breath. What he had once seen as arrogance was, coming from Laurent, a simple statement of fact, carefully evaluated and accepted as truth.
“Yes. You were,” Damen said. “When were you going to tell me that you can fight as well with your left hand as you can with your right?”
Laurent raised one golden eyebrow. “I wasn't.” At Damen's questioning gaze, Laurent continued, letting out a shallow breath. “Very few people know of it. Only a select few trainers in Arles—and now, half the Akielon army.” The last part was said with a faint hint of bitterness.
“Why?” He knew that Laurent understood what he was asking—Why learn it? Why keep it a secret?
Laurent's cool blue gaze held him fast. “You know why.” Damen thought he did. When he didn't respond, Laurent indulged him. “If I were ever going to have a chance of beating the best warrior in Akielos, I needed to be prepared for every contingency. My brother was better than me in every way—and it hadn't mattered, in the end. So when my skill inevitably fell short, I would have something he didn't have. One last trick. And maybe that would be enough.”
Damen reached up and brushed a lock of hair out of his eyes. “It may have worked,” he said, “but I, for one, am grateful that we will never have to find out.”
Laurent's gaze softened, a ghost of a smile flitting across his mouth. “It feels anticlimactic, to tell the truth. I had always pictured it in the heat of battle, the moment that would decide everything, the final turning point. And instead, it came in a sparring ring surrounded by Akielons.”
“I don't know,” Damen said. “Surprising Makedon is not a feat that many have achieved. I myself thought you were all out of surprises.”
Laurent laughed, low and airy. “It was satisfying,” he said. “You should have seen the look on his face up close.”
“You should have seen the look on mine. I'm sure I looked like I had been struck.”
Damen put a fresh layer of salve on the wound, then wrapped it as neatly as he could. He leaned over and caught Laurent's mouth with his, the kiss soft and lingering.
“You're very sweaty,” Damen said teasingly to him when they broke apart. “You should go bathe.”
“Later,” Laurent said. Damen thought he recognized the gleam in his eyes, and sure enough, Laurent took him by the hand and led him over to the bed. “Right now I have a better idea.”
Damen was not about to protest.