Damen felt like fire burned within him during the next few days, as if the torches from the festival now resided within his skin. Having been summoned by Nikandros, the bannermen began to arrive, to pledge their loyalty to Damen, to accept Vere as an ally in the fight for their country. One by one, they knelt in front of the twin thrones, promising their men, their supplies, their lives to Damen and Laurent’s cause.
It was no secret that Laurent was Damen’s lover—wouldn’t have been even if they hadn’t worn the cuffs openly, glinting side by side. He was done with lying, done with hiding, and would not apologize for the truth that burned like a beacon in his heart. Damen knew that it didn’t sit entirely well with the generals, but no voices were raised against them. Makedon had been won over and, after that, there were none who would voice their objections.
10,000 men. That was the count, when the last bannermen had risen from his knees. 10,000 men to stand and fight against the Regent, against Kastor, against those without honor who would stand behind false kings. It was no small number, but still Damen feared it would not be enough. He would not rest easy until the Regent was dead at his feet, his ploys and plots spent and gone.
With the bannermen all gathered, a great feast was prepared, and that evening they found themselves surrounded by golden light in the great hall. Men and women leaned against pillars, sprawled on couches, sat in groups at the tables that had been scattered throughout the room. Slaves wove in and out of the crowd, bringing drinks and food, singing and dancing. Damen watched them with unease, wishing he could order them gone, but he could not breach Akielon tradition so brazenly, not on the precipice of war. If the fates decided to restore him to his throne, however—the Akielos that he ruled over would not be the Akielos of his father.
He drained his wine, called for another. He wondered what his father would think of him now. Would he be proud that Damen was fighting so hard for his birthright? Or would he be ashamed that Damen had resorted to an alliance with their enemies? He certainly wouldn’t approve of the man who sat to Damen’s left, leaning forward as he talked to Jord and Nikandros. Even more of a traditionalist than Makedon, his father would be scornful of Laurent, of his lithe, fair youthfulness, of his biting, sly tongue. Even Laurent’s skill with a sword would be unlikely to impress him enough to accept Damen’s choices.
But he was not his father, as badly as he had wanted to be in his youth. Kastor had taken him from Damen, and all Damen could do was what was right, what was just, what needed to be done. And perhaps what Akielos needed was not another Theomedes, but a King who would bring them further than they had ever been before, who would make peace with their enemies and change traditions that were followed simply because they had been followed by the ones before them.
You would like him, Father, he thought. Not right away, and probably against your will—but one day, you would like him.
Laurent was dressed impeccably as always, the fabric of his clothing rich and beautiful. Tonight, though, instead of his usual dark blue, he wore a color like the winter sky, a color that matched his eyes precisely. Looking at him was like looking into the sun, bright and overwhelming. The same eyes that Damen had seen as ice shards were, when they rested on Damen, like pools of the temperate waters of Damen’s home, bright and warm. Damen had once thought them cold—but now it was impossible to forget that the hearts of the hottest fires burned blue.
Laurent had won over even Nikandros, though Nik would never admit it. But Damen, who had known him his entire life, could see the gleam of grudging admiration in his eyes every time Laurent shot back a sharp retort. Damen suspected that Jord had something to do with Nik’s newfound appreciation—in Nik’s opinion, anyone who could command true loyalty out of men such as Jord had undeniable merits.
Damen’s eyes caught on Jord, who was telling Nikandros about their journey south from Arles. His face was animated, lively, but Damen had seen how the smile would slide away once he thought no one was looking, how his eyes would become fixed on a distant point. The ghost of Aimeric would not release him just yet. Damen hoped that, one day, his smile would be more than a mask.
Damen was broken out of his thoughts as Makedon joined them, carrying five cups and a crystal decanter filled with a dark, smoky liquid that Damen knew all too well. He nearly groaned aloud as Makedon placed it on the table, clapping his hand on Damen’s shoulder as he sat.
“Makedon,” Damen nodded towards him in greeting. “Are you trying to incapacitate us all? The last time I drank your griva I woke up in the stables, with a horse trying to eat my chiton.”
Makedon chuckled at the memory. “It is a momentous occasion, Damianos. Your army has gathered, and we will have few chances to celebrate once we march to Marlas.”
Damen had to admit that he was right. Or maybe the wine he had already drunk was making him easier to convince. Either way, he didn’t stop Makedon as he poured the griva and slid the cups over to them.
Damen looked over at Laurent, brow furrowing in a question. It presented another unique challenge—Laurent didn’t drink, but Makedon would expect it from him, and would lose some of the hard-won respect for him if he declined. But Laurent, as always, faced it with cool-eyed composure.
“I believe I’ve heard talk of this liquor,” he said, lifting the glass to smell it. He raised his eyebrows and closed his eyes briefly at the smell, and Damen had to suppress a laugh at his expression. If he thought that was bad, it was nothing compared to what it felt like burning down your throat. “I believe your exact words were, ‘It's been known to reduce grown men to incoherent puddles on the floor,’ were they not, Damen?”
Makedon’s booming laugh rang out over the table before Damen could respond. “He’s not wrong,” he said, “though it largely depends on the man. Tell me, Prince, do you drink like you fight? You don’t look like you can hold your liquor, but I underestimated you once before.”
It came out sounding like a challenge, and, really, it was, though a good-natured one. Laurent’s eyes gleamed as he looked at Makedon and then, without another word, he put the cup to his lips and downed the liquid before placing it, empty, upon the table. His impassive expression did not change, though Damen noted that he blinked a few times more than normal.
“I’m afraid my left-handed trick will do me little good in this area, Makedon,” he replied, his voice just a little raspy, “but I will do my best to match your expectations.”
Makedon’s approval was evident. He raised his cup in Laurent’s direction. “To new alliances and unexpected talents,” he said, and then drained his cup. He looked over at Damen with a prurient look. “Perhaps his talents are even more numerous than we know.”
Damen lifted his own cup to avoid response. The griva burned down his throat, and he told himself that it was only the liquor that had a flush rising to his face.
Another cup later, the edges of Damen’s vision were a little blurry, and the room had taken on a pleasant warmth. He looked around the table, feeling a sudden surge of affection for all of them. These men were here because of him, willing to ride into battle to restore Damen to his throne. His gratitude caught slightly in his throat, and he cleared it, returning his attention to the conversation.
“...and no sooner had she turned the corner than the brunette turned around, and there’s me trying to pretend I had been alone the entire time,” Makedon was saying above Nik and Jord’s laughter. Laurent was smiling as he listened. Though Damen hadn’t been paying attention to the beginning of the story, he had heard this story at least three times before, and his mind wandered.
Sometime over the last half hour, Laurent had gotten closer to Damen. He wasn’t sure if Laurent had moved towards him or if Damen had slid unconsciously towards Laurent. It didn’t help Damen’s concentration.
He had just taken another sip of griva when he felt a hand on his knee under the table, and he only barely contained his jerk of surprise. He felt his mind sharpen as he slowly straightened his spine. The hand slid to the inside of his knee, and Damen cleared his throat as he turned to look at Laurent.
He didn’t know what he expected to see—Laurent was focused upon Makedon, his face expressionless except for when he smiled at whatever Makedon had said. Damen stared at him, and finally, as if noticing him for the first time, Laurent turned to him. His hand wandered slightly up and Damen glared. Laurent raised his eyebrows, the picture of innocence, and then jerked his head towards Makedon as though to say What? Pay attention.
Damen forced himself to turn back to Makedon, swallowing hard as he did his best to ignore Laurent, which was like trying to ignore a bee as it stung you. He attempted it anyways.
“...so there I am, thinking I had gotten away with it. And then she turns to me, leans in, and whispers in my ear, ‘You have rouge on your neck, and it’s not the color I wear.’ Before I could try to come up with an excuse, she rose and was gone. Her father never forgave me.”
Nik, Laurent, and Jord laughed appreciatively, and Damen joined in a second too late, his laugh sounding false and forced—which it very much was, as Laurent’s hand continued to wander. He couldn’t believe Laurent was doing this here, in front of the last people he would want as witnesses.
Damen was going to kill him.
His memory shifted sideways, in the slippery way that it does when liquor is involved, and suddenly he was in the tavern at Nesson, Laurent beside him wearing the expensive earring of a prized pet. There was the same illicit thrill, the same feeling of Laurent’s hand sliding up his thigh, the same difficulty getting his thoughts together.
But this time, it wasn’t a prince playing at pet, an act that would be shed as soon as they were out of sight. This was Laurent, the man who had said that he loved Damen—the memory sent a shiver through him—and was doing this because he wanted to. That thought was almost enough to dislodge Damen’s frustration.
“So, Damianos, how did this—alliance—come to be? I expect you met under rather difficult circumstances.” Makedon asked.
Damen processed the words one by one as Laurent’s hand toyed with the hem of his chiton. He was trying to put them all together and make sense of the question when Laurent took pity upon him and spoke in his stead.
“You guessed correctly,” Laurent said, his voice annoyingly even, with no hint of what he was doing. “I’m sure you can imagine that I wasn’t exactly welcoming when I recognized him. It took some time for us to—get along.” His hand was now entirely under Damen’s chiton, inching further up his thigh. Damen closed his eyes, trying to breathe through it.
Makedon misinterpreted his expression. “Not fond memories, Damianos?”
Damen opened his eyes, then turned to glower at Laurent, who smiled blandly at him, his fingers dancing across Damen’s skin, unseen. “I’m sure you’ve noticed Laurent’s natural talent for being rather infuriating at times,” he said through clenched teeth.
There were no objections. Makedon seemed to admire it about Laurent, while Jord seemed to feel only pure pride. Nik’s expression said that he thought “at times” was a generous addition. At this moment, Damen was inclined to agree.
“I’ll admit that my personality is not for everybody,” Laurent said with an easy smile. “It has the tendency to—inflame.”
With that, Laurent brushed his fingers against the side of Damen’s cock, half-hard already. Damen jerked, his knee hitting the leg of the table, causing them all to reach out and steady their cups.
“Perhaps no more griva for you, Damianos,” Makedon said with a laugh.
“And here we thought it would be me who couldn’t handle my alcohol,” Laurent said. His eyes sparkled with amusement.
Damen thought explicitly about what he would do to Laurent when he got him alone. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to kill him or fuck him. His body and his mind were sending rather mixed messages.
The next ten minutes were an exercise of pure discipline. Laurent, while engaging easily in the conversation around him, teased and caressed, alternating between almost-nonexistent brushes and firm grips. It took everything Damen had to keep it off his face, though he didn’t even try to talk. He was well aware of his own limitations.
Laurent, possessing intimate knowledge of Damen’s particular likes, took him apart piece by piece under the table. He was achingly hard, desperate to get out of this hall, to get his hands on Laurent. Laurent pressed his thumb against the underside of Damen’s cock, then withdrew his hand completely. Damen couldn’t hold back a small groan that he, somehow, managed to turn into a clearing of his throat.
“Makedon,” Laurent said with a smile, rising from his seat, “I would thank you for introducing me to griva, except I cannot feel my throat under the burning, so I’m afraid it would not be sincere.” Makedon laughed appreciatively. “Now, if you will all excuse me, I must retire. I find myself suddenly craving my bed.”
Damen tried to think of a way to excuse himself from the table as inconspicuously as possible—but this, too, was part of Laurent’s game, and he knew there was nothing for it. These men were not idiots, and would know exactly where Damen was going and for what reason. He rearranged his chiton as well as he could before standing. He was grateful for his dark skin as his face burned, with wrath and arousal and chagrin.
“Good night,” he said to the men, ignoring Makedon’s smirk and Nikandros’s eye roll, and then, without another word, he turned and followed Laurent from the hall.
He kept his pace normal—he would be damned if Laurent would make him chase him, though a traitorous voice in his head whispered that, regardless of his pace, that was exactly what he was doing. He stubbornly told the voice to shut up.
Laurent, about twenty feet in front of Damen, didn’t turn to look back, so sure of himself as always. It was all Damen could do not to speed up as Laurent disappeared around the corner towards their room. Damen turned the corner just in time to see Laurent open the door and step through. He paused outside only long enough to tell the guards not to disturb them.
Laurent had stopped just inside the doorway, waiting for Damen. As soon as the door was shut behind him Damen had Laurent pressed against it, his arms braced on either side of Laurent’s head. Laurent looked exhilarated, his chest rising and falling against Damen’s with shallow breaths.
“I haven’t seen you look at me like this since Arles,” he said. “Do you want to kill me or kiss me?”
“A little bit of both,” Damen growled. “You are—”
“Incendiary?” Laurent said with a wicked smile.
Damen just shook his head. To list the words that described Laurent would take all night, and Damen had other ideas of how to spend that time.
Without further hesitation, Damen caught Laurent’s mouth in a kiss. It was not like most of their other kisses, soft and lingering. This kiss was bruising and possessive, full of pent-up frustration and desire. Laurent seemed to melt into Damen’s fierce attention, his hand coming up to curl into Damen’s hair. Damen felt the light scrape of teeth against his bottom lip and, with effort, he broke the kiss.
Chest heaving, he looked down at Laurent. “How much griva did you drink?”
“Enough that I can allow myself to have this,” Laurent said, his words clear and warm. “Not enough that you should stop.”
Damen searched his eyes for any hesitation, for any sign that Laurent was overly affected by the liquor. He found none—Laurent’s gaze was burning and steady, his eyes dark with need.
“I know your preference in bed, and I’m not sure I can—”
“Damen. Do you really think I would have provoked you like this if I wanted it slow and gentle?”
The flood of heat that came from those words was immediate and overwhelming. Damen closed his eyes for a moment, taking slow, shallow breaths.
“I want it, Damen,” Laurent continued. “Would you deny me?”
Damen leaned his forehead against Laurent’s, a stolen, tender moment in the midst of their desperation. “Never. I could never deny you, Laurent.”
“Then don’t,” he said, and he was kissing Damen again, hungry and consuming, and Damen was lost to it. Laurent’s hands grasped at his chiton, pulling him closer, and Damen obliged, pressing Laurent against the door. Damen had no doubt that the guards could hear them, and truly did not care. Discretion had long since gone out the window.
Laurent’s fingertips were dragging down Damen’s sides, and even through the fabric, they felt like fire. Damen slid his arm between Laurent’s lower back and the door, pulling him tighter against him. Laurent broke their kiss, leaning his head against the door to catch his breath. Damen wasted no time focusing his attention elsewhere.
“It’s your own fault, you know,” Laurent said, panting a little as Damen kissed his way down Laurent’s neck. “Perhaps if you wore real clothing, instead of a bedsheet that barely covers your torso.”
“Almost everyone in that hall was in a chiton,” Damen said against Laurent’s skin, “and I didn’t see you fondling them under the table.”
“Yes, well, you were the closest.”
“Mmm. Was that the only reason?”
“Perhaps,” Laurent said with a quick intake of breath as he felt Damen’s teeth on his neck, “not the only reason.”
Damen felt Laurent’s hand sliding lower, brushing the bare skin of his thigh, returning to where all of this had started. Sliding his arm from Laurent’s back, Damen grabbed both of Laurent’s slender wrists, feeling the silky weight of the gold encircling one of them. He brought them both above Laurent’s head and, with one arm, kept them there.
“I’ve had quite enough of your wandering hands,” Damen said.
Laurent was staring at him the same way he did whenever Damen’s physicality was demonstrated, and Damen knew him well enough now to know that he liked it, liked having his iron control stripped away. It was a thought that he tucked away for another time, to be explored more in-depth.
“I was under the impression that you were quite enjoying my wandering hands,” Laurent said with raised eyebrows, testing Damen’s hold on his wrists. He didn’t seem disappointed to find that he couldn’t move Damen’s grip at all.
“If you thought I would simply let you toy with me without retribution, you’re not as clever as you think you are.”
Damen’s other hand occupied itself with the laces at Laurent’s neck, loosening them as quickly as he could. Laurent glanced down.
“Oh, I can’t wait to see you do this one-handed. Even with two hands, it takes you half the night. Of course, you could release me,” Laurent said, looking back up at Damen, his eyes all innocence.
“Stop talking,” Damen said, and then, to ensure it, he kissed Laurent again. It was the only effective way he had found of getting Laurent to shut up, and Laurent didn’t seem to mind, making a satisfied sound against Damen’s mouth.
He was indeed struggling to undo the laces with one hand, but he wasn’t about to give Laurent the satisfaction of being right. He forced himself to concentrate, drawing each one out of its eyelet until the jacket parted beneath his fingers. He ran his hand under it, sliding his way across the thin fabric of the shirt beneath. Laurent arched against the touch, his skin sensitive even with fabric between them.
“I thought this was going to go faster,” Laurent said, though his shaky voice betrayed him a little. Damen didn’t bother to respond, shifting until his thigh was between Laurent’s, earning him a gasp.
“I haven’t even touched you,” Damen said low into Laurent’s ear, “and you’re already roused.”
Laurent shifted against him, proving his point. “I liked watching you downstairs. I liked knowing what I was doing to you.”
Damen wanted to be annoyed, but he loved nothing more than his lovers taking their pleasure the way they wanted. He didn’t know what experience—if any—Laurent had before him, but he had the distinct sense that Laurent was just beginning to figure out what he liked, and more than that, he was just beginning to be bold enough to take it.
Damen let go of Laurent’s wrists, watching the slight disappointment flash over Laurent’s face. Before he could complain, however, Damen was lifting him, Laurent’s arms coming to wrap around his neck as Damen’s hands caught behind his knees. The movement pressed them together, and, for a moment, Damen couldn’t move, enjoying the feeling too much. But the fire in his veins was burning too hot. He wanted so much more.
A few steps brought them over to the bed, and Damen wasted no time letting Laurent fall to the sheets. He fumbled slightly at the pin at his shoulder, arousal making him clumsy, before he was able to flick it open and let his chiton fall to the ground. Laurent watched him, his eyes devouring Damen.
Damen moved onto the bed, crawling forward until he was hovering over Laurent. He leaned down and kissed him, threading his fingers into Laurent’s hair in a hard grip that had Laurent gasping against his mouth. It was suddenly unbearable to Damen that Laurent was clothed beneath him, and he broke the kiss, moving down to unlace Laurent’s shirt.
Laurent’s chest was flushed, rising and falling quickly. Damen didn’t bother removing Laurent’s jacket and shirt, but rather left them open and trailing laces as he moved down to unlace Laurent’s pants. A few moments and they were undone, and Damen slid them down and off, finally baring Laurent’s arousal.
It was incredibly pleasing to Damen that he had Laurent like this without a touch, and he thought of Laurent’s hand, inching its way up his thigh as a hundred people moved about them. A thread of self-indulgence went through Damen, and he trailed his fingers across Laurent’s skin, relishing the shiver that went up Laurent’s spine.
“Damen,” Laurent said, and it was as close to pleading as Laurent would allow himself. Damen kept his eyes fixed on Laurent’s as his hand slid closer to where Laurent wanted him, watching Laurent’s anticipation as it built. And then he removed his hand entirely, shifting so he could press his mouth against Laurent’s stomach, the only place where he was touching him at all.
It earned him a sound of displeasure as Laurent arched against empty air, and Damen hummed contentedly against Laurent’s skin, making no effort to ease Laurent’s clear frustration.
“You’re enjoying this,” Laurent said, his voice strained.
Damen looked up at him, smiling. “Did you truly think I wouldn't take my revenge, after what you did downstairs? ” He pressed another light kiss right above Laurent’s hip.
“It’s unlike you to be this petty,” Laurent said, his head falling back against the sheets as Damen’s mouth moved across his skin.
“It would seem that you bring out previously unknown qualities in me,” Damen replied. “Congratulations.”
He moved back up to catch Laurent’s mouth in a kiss before Laurent could reply, and before long they were both out of breath from the intensity of it. Despite Damen’s teasing, he wanted nothing more than to be inside Laurent right now, to draw cries of pleasure from him. He was dizzy with the thought of it.
He felt one of Laurent’s hands sliding down his side, the other flung up above his head. He reached down, threading his fingers through Laurent’s, before bringing his hand up to join the other, capturing them again with one arm as he pressed them into the sheets.
His other hand danced along Laurent’s side, sliding beneath the fabric of his shirt to trail slowly down. Laurent jerked slightly beneath him, and Damen pressed his hip down, holding him still. He occupied himself for a moment at Laurent’s neck, rubbing his thumb back and forth across Laurent’s skin.
“Damen,” Laurent said again, breathless, and Damen smiled against his neck, his only acknowledgment of Laurent’s request. His hand slid inwards, slowly, until finally he gave in and wrapped his hand around Laurent’s cock.
Truly, he didn’t expect it to have the effect it had. Laurent arched into the touch, his hands straining against Damen’s grip, and he let a cry fall from his lips, louder than he usually allowed himself to be. Damen rolled his wrist, forgoing the light touches as he built a rhythm that had Laurent writhing beneath him. Laurent’s eyes were closed, his head tilted back against the sheets, his mouth open around gasps and small sounds of pleasure that went straight through Damen.
“Damen,” Laurent gasped, “please. I need...please.”
It was too much. Damen hadn’t actually thought he could drive Laurent to begging, but there was no other word for Laurent’s breathless, stuttering pleas. Damen moved his hand, reaching down to where he wanted to be, then froze.
Laurent was already oiled.
It almost undid him completely. All thoughts of teasing went out the window as Damen imagined Laurent preparing himself before dinner, then lacing himself up in his restrictive clothing, planning what he would do to Damen, waiting for this moment. The knowledge roared through Damen, and for a moment, he couldn’t breathe. Finally, his body remembered what it wanted, and his mind caught up a few moments later.
Still holding Laurent’s arms immobile above him, Damen moved his hand to the back of Laurent’s thigh, hitching his leg up so he could wrap it around Damen, allowing Damen to position himself against Laurent. He didn’t press in, not yet, though every muscle in his body yearned for it.
“Do it,” Laurent said impatiently, shifting against Damen in a way that made Damen close his eyes, struggling to focus. “Damen.”
Damen opened his eyes. Laurent’s were on him, burning through him.
“Don’t go slow.”
So Damen didn’t.
With one long, hot slide, he buried himself within Laurent, basking in the tangled sound of pleasure it tore from Laurent. Though they had made love since their declarations at the festival, this felt different—it was as though their desire for each other had overflowed, and now they were drowning in it, both of them lost to the intensity of it.
Obeying Laurent’s order was not difficult. It felt like hours since they had been down at dinner, and Damen allowed his body to find the rhythm it wanted, the fevered, deep presses into Laurent that he needed. He leaned forward so that he could press his forehead against Laurent’s, the movement shifting Laurent’s hips even further up, and it had them both groaning as Damen slid deeper.
He obliged, and Laurent arched up to kiss him, making sweet sounds that were lost between their lips. Damen wasn’t going to last long, not at this pace, but he wanted to watch Laurent come undone beneath him first, wanted to be as close as possible as Laurent let go. Laurent’s fingers dug into Damen’s forearm, his heel against Damen’s back, and Damen could feel everything, every place they touched, every muscle as they moved together.
Laurent broke the kiss, pressing his head back against the sheets. His eyes were almost closed, but Damen could see a sliver of blue, Laurent’s slitted gazed locked onto him. Damen could tell he was close, could feel the tension rising in his body.
Yes, he thought, or maybe he said it out loud—he didn’t know or care. Laurent, yes, let go, come apart with me—
And then, just when Damen thought he couldn’t hold out any longer, Laurent did, shattering against Damen as he came, untouched. The sound that fell from his lips was broken, drenched in pleasure, and he arched against Damen, his fingers clawing against his arm, and the pain was a bright point of focus in the sea of Damen’s bliss. He held on to that feeling for one, two, three more moments and then he, too, was shattering, staring into Laurent’s eyes as he shuddered to the end.
He didn’t move as he looked down at Laurent, who was watching him from beneath his golden lashes, his chest still rising and falling with exertion. Damen couldn’t resist leaning down and stealing a long, sweet kiss, much different from their others that night.
“You can let me go now,” Laurent muttered against his lips, smiling, and Damen realized he still had Laurent’s arms pinned above his head. He shifted, moving to fall beside Laurent on the bed, collapsing against the sheets, boneless. He rolled to his side, facing Laurent, who did the same, tangling their ankles together and reaching over to rest a palm on Damen’s cheek, a gentle touch that only Damen was allowed.
“I love you,” Damen whispered. He couldn’t help it, as the feel of it burned through his chest. He didn’t know how much longer they had together, and he refused to miss any opportunity to say it.
Laurent’s smile was warm and genuine as he regarded Damen. “I love you too, Damianos,” he said, and Damen’s name was a tether, a confession, a promise.
Damen pulled him close and, as Laurent curled into his chest, he prayed to any god who was listening to let him keep this, to let him have this for just a little longer.