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Beyond The End of the Stars

Chapter Text

The weight of gold at Damen's neck did not weigh nearly as heavily on him as his thoughts weighed on his mind.

He was sitting on the edge of one of the campfires, turning his wrist idly and watching the light glint off the gold there. The sight of his slave cuffs still filled him with disgust and a dull, throbbing anger, but he caught himself entranced by the way the light played off them now, the smooth gold a bright contrast to his skin.

He had just left the tent after another taxing few hours of tactic discussion with Laurent. Damen had been frustrated and dancing on a very dangerous line with Laurent by the time Laurent had dismissed him. Instead of retreating to his pallet, Damen had stood and, when Laurent made no move to stop him, thrown the entrance flap to the side and left, barely restraining the impatience in his step.

Damen twisted his wrist again, the warm metal glowing slightly in the night, thinking back to their disastrous conversation.

"I will not take advice from a slave on how to command my men," Laurent had told him, his face expressionless as he had looked at Damen across the table. He had been draped casually in his seat, one leg drawn up onto the chair. His arm was braced on his raised knee, a goblet of water hanging from his fingertips. On anyone else, the pose would have suggested arrogance. A spoiled child playing at prince.

On Laurent, it went straight past arrogance and into pure disdain.

Damen had taken a deep breath in to stop himself from saying something that would have him back in chains. Helping him is your best path back to Ios, he had reminded himself. Get him safely to the border, and then he and the Regent can squabble their country into shreds if they want to.

After a few moments, during which Laurent's eyes never left his face, Damen had continued.

"Your men whisper behind your back. To them, you're almost not human. Cold, calculating, distant. How are they supposed to follow you if they don't even know you? You'll never have their loyalty this way."

Laurent's blue eyes had been like chips of ice as he looked at Damen, but his voice had been cool and collected as always when he spoke. "You stray very close to danger. You would do well to remember your place. I accept your advice because of your knowledge of these lands, nothing more. I know how to command my men."

"Then you are playing right into your uncle's plans! He knows you, he wants your men to feel no tie to you so that at the first sign of trouble, their allegiance will shift!" Damen had exclaimed, forgetting himself and slapping his hand down onto the table between them in anger. Damen saw a muscle clench in Laurent's jaw, but nothing else about his posture or expression changed.

Silence had stretched between them like spun glass, fragile and sharp. Laurent made no move to dispel it, wielding it as he would a weapon. Damen cursed himself for forgetting that he was not in one of his war councils, free to speak as he would. He wondered briefly if he would find himself again on the flogging post.

The silence had lasted an uncomfortable amount of time, and Damen knew it would be unwise to be the one to break it. He looked back at Laurent, meeting his cold gaze. It took all of his will not to look down. Finally, Laurent had leaned forward, placing the goblet on the table. His eyes were still on Damen as he said, "We are done here. I do not need your services tonight. You are dismissed."

Laurent's gaze had lowered once more to the map stretched in front of him, and when Damen had stood to leave, Laurent had given no indication that he was even aware of Damen's presence.

Now, sitting next to the dying embers of the fire as the night deepened, Damen knew he had touched a nerve. Laurent was not going to listen to his counsel. He rubbed his hand on his sore, tense neck, wondering why he even bothered.

Sighing, and hoping Laurent was already asleep in their tent, Damen stood to go to bed.

*****

The next night, Damen joined Jord at one of the campfires. Jord nodded to him as he sat, and a few other men greeted him lazily. Damen was still not accustomed to being treated as anything but a slave from Veretians, but it was nice to fall back into the casual company of men who had a common goal.

Jord silently offered him some of the camp wine. Damen took it gratefully. The wine was just as terrible as it had been on day one.

They both gazed at the fire, as the men around them exchanged profane stories and jokes. Damen drank his wine quickly, then accepted another cup from Jord.

"The Prince did not want your company tonight?" Jord asked, looking at Damen.

"I seem to have offered one too many opinions for his taste," Damen responded after taking a particularly large swig of wine, grimacing.

"Ah," said Jord sympathetically, though Damen caught a slight upturn at the corner of Jord's mouth when he said it. "His Highness ....does not always respond well to suggestions that imply he doesn't know precisely what he's doing."

"I've noticed," said Damen wryly. "His pride is too great to take advice that could help him, especially from a slave."

Jord was watching him thoughtfully. "He does not treat you as a slave," he finally said. "The Prince has always kept his own counsel, allowing no one close to his plans. But he spends every night, well into the morning, listening to you."

"Listening, but never actually following," Damen muttered. "He is too stubborn by half."

Jord was still watching him with interest, but he decided to let the subject lie. Content to sit in silence, they both gazed, mesmerized, at the flames.

Damen had expected Laurent to still be angry with him from their conversation last night, but Laurent had treated him with the same cool, detached command he always assumed, riding tall and straight at the head of their company, a golden figurehead leading them on. He had spoken to Damen as if nothing had happened.

Damen finished off his cup of wine, wondering if he would ever understand Laurent.

Jord interrupted his thoughts with a gentle nudge to his shoulder and a nod across the fire. Following his stare, it took Damen a few moments to register what he was looking at. The golden hair and fair skin was especially lovely in the firelight, and blue eyes met his own as Laurent settled onto a stump that served as a seat.

Laurent seemed impervious to the sudden cease in talking that his presence had inspired. His eyes stayed fixed on Damen. Damen didn't look away.

As the silence became tangible, Laurent moved his gaze to take in the other men. "By all means, continue. I did not come here to sit in silence."

No one knew quite how to break the awkward pause. Finally, clearing his throat, Jord spoke.

"We were discussing new exercises we could use in our training, Your Highness. Care to weigh in?"

Laurent's eyes sparked with amusement. "A group of men like this, tired after a long day's ride, and you're trying to tell me you were discussing work? Come, now. My delicate prince ears will not bleed at the sound of the word 'fuck'."

A much more stunned silence, following this. Lazar was the one to break it this time, glancing hesitantly at Laurent as he continued a story he had been in the middle of telling about a brothel, a chicken, and an accidental display of public nudity.

Slowly, the atmosphere of the fire returned to its previous quality, though no one forgot who was sitting with them. Laurent seemed content to listen, contributing nothing to the conversation, but Damen caught him smiling during some of the more ribald jokes.

Damen found that he couldn't seem to look away from Laurent. His gaze was drawn to the way the light hollowed a long shadow under his cheekbone, the way the dancing flames softened his features and bleached the color from him, rendering him entirely in whites and golds. Even his absurd Veretian laces looked less stiff and more elegant.

For just a moment, Damen could picture Laurent....softer. Not caught in a web of war and deceit. Not forced to lock every shred of emotion behind a tightly-held mask of steely indifference. Not constantly ripping people to shreds with his words, his only defense in a world looking to swallow him whole. It took very little effort for his imagination to replace this fire with another, lit in a hearth in a room swathed in silks. Laurent, relaxed in front of it, clothed in only a plain white shirt open at the throat, free from those wretched laces. Laurent, his face elegant and young, his hair impossibly golden, declaring more wealth than all the gaudy decorations of all the pets in Arles. Laurent, his face turning up to look at Damen, open and honest, his soft lips parting in a gentle smile...

A nudge to his ribs from Jord forced Damen out of his reverie, and, with a jolt, he realized Laurent's eyes were on him as well. If he hadn't had so much practice, Damen would have been unable to hold his level gaze. Flushing slightly, Damen wondered how long he had been staring at Laurent, and how long Laurent had been staring back.

This was ridiculous. He'd had too much wine, that was all. He forced himself to remember that every scar on his back had been administered under Laurent's unwavering command. He dropped his eyes from Laurent's stare to look at the fire. Another memory arose, unbidden--Laurent pressing a knife into his hand, the shock as Laurent's fingers wrapped around his own, guiding the knife to Laurent's ribs. I know exactly what it is to want to kill a man, and to wait, Laurent had said.

Damen found he no longer knew what he wanted from Laurent.

This was not a game he could play and win. He was still a slave in a rival country, no matter how boldly he spoke to Laurent, and he was under the command of the one person who would most like to kill him if he ever discovered who Damen truly was. There was no future for them that didn't end in bloodshed. And here he was, lost in daydreams because the Prince was fair and lovely.

Nikandros would have my throat if he knew, Damen thought to himself wryly. Luckily, by the time he knows I'm alive, I'll be long gone from Laurent.

Jord cleared his throat quietly, then said, "I believe the Prince requires your company." Damen glanced at Jord to find him with an annoyingly knowing smile on his face, though he was clearly trying to repress it.

Damen moved his glance over to Laurent, who had stood up and was waiting for him with raised eyebrows. The fire had gone quiet again, but not with the same discomfort that had signaled Laurent's arrival. Damen could already see new respect in the eyes of some of the men.

Sighing to himself, Damen arose to accompany Laurent back to the tent. Tomorrow night, he was only having one cup of wine.

*****

Back at the tent, Laurent gestured for Damen to take a seat. He sat across from him in his usual chair, draping across it like he had last night. He watched Damen across the table, not speaking. Damen tried to gauge any emotion from his face, but as usual, there was nothing but impassive elegance.

Damen spoke first. "What made you change your mind?"

Laurent regarded him with a long, searching look. Instead of answering Damen, he poured a cup of wine and set it in front of Damen, then poured a cup of water for himself. Damen looked down at the wine, then back up a Laurent.

"I think I've had enough wine," he said, forcing himself not to flush at the memory of his fireside thoughts.

Laurent's expression was amused. "Is that why you were staring at me the entire time?" he asked, without heat.

"I....I was merely surprised to see you there," said Damen, less successful at keeping emotion out of his voice. "You made your intentions to ignore my advice clear last night." Contrary to his previous statement, he took another sip of wine to have something to do with his hands.

"Would you like to gloat? Would you like to tell me that your plan worked exactly as you intended it? Maybe next time I'll throw in a story about how you fucked me. That is what soldiers talk about, is it not?" Laurent took a sip of water, then let the cup dangle from his long fingers as he watched Damen's response.

"I didn't...that isn't...you know very well that isn't what I meant," Damen said, cursing his inability to hide his reaction to Laurent's vulgarity. "It just helps them to see you there. Already talk will be spreading about it. The more they know you, the more they will be loyal to you."

Laurent looked at him, his gaze appraising. "Is that how you feel? Do you feel loyal? I had your back flayed open. I had you kneeling in chains at my feet. I would say that you have come to know me quite well. Tell me, is my personality one that inspires loyalty?"

Damen felt as if he had been dropped in a pit of snakes. He tread very carefully, for fear of making a misstep and being bitten. Slowly, choosing his words carefully, he said, "I have come to know you. You seem to care for no one. You do nothing that isn't a means to accomplish your ends. Every step is calculated, cruel, precise." He paused. Laurent's jaw was tense.

Damen continued. "You also bargained for the other slaves of Akielos, ensuring they were sent to Patras to be well taken care of. You care for Nicaise, and he cares for you. You treat your men well. In Nesson-Eloy, you gave us away for the fun of the chase." Another pause. Quieter: "You loved your brother."

Laurent hissed in a sharp intake of breath, as if Damen had slapped him. "That's enough," he said, and Damen was surprised to see a slight hint of color high on Laurent's cheeks. "You....don't speak of my brother again."

Damen knew he was on very dangerous ground, but he steeled himself and continued. His voice was low and gentle. "Your men say how frigid you are. You give them no reason to think differently. But I have seen otherwise. I have seen you laughing. I have seen that you care for this country. The only reason you appear cold and distant is because that's how you want to appear. It's just another piece in your game."

Laurent's chest was rising and falling rapidly, and though his posture had not changed, Damen could see the rigid set to his body, as if Laurent was forcing every muscle to stay completely still. "I said, that's enough."

This was the most reaction Damen had ever gotten out of Laurent, and he wanted more. He wanted to get behind those walls and see why they had been built in the first place.

Recklessly, though he knew he was courting the whipping post, Damen forged on. "You trust no one. Even men who would help you, even men who would follow you, even men who would love you." He paused a moment, knowing his next words were his most dangerous yet. "You don't have to do it alone."

Laurent had finally straightened in his chair, his knuckles white where they clenched around his cup. "I have only ever been alone," he spat. His eyes bored into Damen, a challenge and a threat. "Ever since Damianos of Akielos met my brother on the field at Marlas and cut him down, I have been alone." Damen's blood ran cold at those words. "Every time I have trusted, it has been used against me. You have seen it yourself. I am surrounded by deceit and betrayal. Why would I be so stupid as to make the same mistake again?"

Damen craved to know who he had ever trusted, what had happened that had betrayed that trust so. But he knew that he had pushed Laurent too far tonight. He would not ask. Not now.

In a very quiet voice, Damen asked, "Then why did you trust me? Why did you take my advice tonight?" Damen forced himself to meet Laurent's gaze when he said it. It was incredibly difficult to do so--Laurent may as well have been wielding knives instead of glances.

The moment stretched on painfully. Laurent took the time to calm his breath, to pull himself back from the emotion he had revealed. Finally, just as quietly, he said, "I don't know. I don't understand you."

In a night filled with surprises, this was the most shocking thing Damen had yet encountered. Laurent had acknowledged that he trusted Damen, at least a little bit, and also that he didn't know why. Damen was overtaken with a sudden urge to tell Laurent who he was, to have no more untruths between them. But to do so would be suicidal. Damen had killed the last person Laurent had ever trusted.

An unknown emotion was rising in Damen, uncomfortable and guilty, mixed confusingly with glee. Laurent trusted him. But Laurent trusted a lie. Damen was sickened by the thought of Laurent discovering that he had, once again, put his trust in someone who would betray him, who had already betrayed him, who was, in fact, his greatest enemy.

While Damen had struggled to find something to say to him, Laurent had risen, placing the cup of water on the table. He was once again contained, controlled, distant.

"That is all for tonight. I will need no further services from you."

Without glancing back at Damen, Laurent strode from the tent. Damen stayed awake for a long time, staring at the entrance to the tent, but he never heard Laurent come to bed.

Chapter Text

Damen thought that Laurent would retreat, foregoing the campfire to prove a point to Damen. But to his surprise, Laurent was there the next night. And the next. For the next four days, Laurent spent the evening among his men, and it became clear that the men were enjoying it. Though Laurent rarely spoke, it was enough to have him there, to see him laugh quietly at a joke. It bonded them, as Damen knew it would.

On the fourth night, Lazar grew bold.

"So, Your Highness, you know all of our stories, but we know none of yours. This one," here Lazar jerked his head in Damen's direction, "won't tell us anything good."

Damen flushed, waiting for Laurent to tear Lazar--and himself-- apart. Instead, Laurent's eyes were mischievous over the fire.

"Stories? Are you asking me to tell you about all the fucks I've had? Or are you perhaps curious to hear whether I've had any at all?"

Lazar backtracked a bit, trying to save face in front of his Prince. He chose to drag Damen into it to do so. "It's just....this one is such a big brute. Must be quite something to have him as a bed slave. Must feel like being fucked by two men." Damen closed his eyes in horror, unwilling to see Laurent's face at the moment.

When he opened them, Laurent was still looking lazily at Lazar. Half the company was holding its breath, wondering if Lazar had gone too far. Everyone knew it was a nasty thing to get on the wrong side of the Prince.

Laurent smiled. "How do you know it isn't the other way around?" he said, his voice full of perilous amusement.

The company fell apart. Lazar choked on his wine, having been in the middle of a swig when Laurent had spoken. Most of the other men had fallen into uncontrollable laughter--it was unclear whether it was from the thought of Laurent fucking Damen, or simply the unexpectedness of the answer from their Prince. Jord had a small smile on his face, and glanced to his side at Damen.

Damen was grateful both for his dark skin and the cover of night, as both masked his flush of embarrassment. He drank his wine down in two large gulps, using it as a cover while he regained his composure. When he brought the cup down, Laurent was looking at him over the fire, a wicked smile on his face. Damen glared.

The fireside relaxed after that, and Laurent had them all crying from laughter with a story about a time that he paid a blonde stableboy to dress up in his clothes and ride into the forest, causing half the palace to chase after him, thinking the boy the Prince. When one of the men asked why he had gone to all the trouble, Laurent had raised his eyebrow as if the answer was obvious, then simply replied, "I didn't feel like having lessons that day."

By the end of the night, it was clear that, to the men, Laurent had stepped down from his pedestal and become one of them. Damen still didn't appreciate his method, but he couldn't argue that it hadn't been effective. A few of the men clasped the Prince's shoulder as they walked by to their beds. Laurent's small smile stayed effortlessly in place, but Damen thought he was the only one who noticed how Laurent's body tensed when he was touched. Damen frowned to himself.

When Laurent rose, Damen found himself unconsciously rising with him.

*****

To his surprise, Laurent did not return to the tent.

Damen followed him as he wound through the camp, passing its edge and climbing a small rise on the other side. When he got to the top, Damen found Laurent leaning against the inside of an old, crumbling archway, one of the ruins that scattered these hills. Away from the camp, the only light came from the stars scattered overhead and a low sliver moon cresting the horizon. Laurent's attention was fixed on the sky, his head tilted back, the long column of his throat outlined against the dark. 

Without looking at him, Laurent said, "You don't have to follow me everywhere, you know."

Reaching his side, Damen leaned against the other side of the archway, looking out over the landscape. "Sure I do," he said pleasantly. "Every time I leave you alone, you find trouble in one way or another."

Damen saw a smile play at the edges of Laurent's lips. It was a smile he recognized from Nesson-Eloy, a playful and strangely innocent side of Laurent. Damen found himself smiling too, and realized with a sharp jolt of joy that he liked causing that smile.

"I seem to find trouble wherever I am, with or without you," Laurent said back. "In fact, my trouble seems to have increased since your arrival."

Damen couldn't help the low laugh that escaped him. "That's not my fault. I'm not the one sending armies and mercenaries after you."

The mood shifted slightly, and Laurent turned to give him a long, searching look. "No," he said quietly, his brow furrowing slightly as if in confusion. "You're not." His gaze returned to the sky.

Damen's eyes roved over Laurent's face. Instead of the whites and golds that firelight cast him in, moonlight and starlight rendered him completely in silver, sharp and lively as the edge of a sword. His fairness caused something to catch in Damen's chest.

Unable to look away, his fingers remembered the softness of Laurent's hair as he brushed it to the side to undo the laces at his neck. He remembered from the baths how perfectly proportioned Laurent's body was under his forbidding clothes. He remembered the sound of a whisper in his ear, the glint of a sapphire earring, the feel of Laurent's hand on his thigh. If only Laurent was anyone else....if only Damen were anyone else....

"Did you come here just to stare at me? " Laurent asked without looking at Damen, jolting him out of his thoughts. "That seems to be a common pastime of yours as of late. Or are you trying to think of how best to yell at me for my pronouncement at the campfire?" The hint of that smile was back.

Damen shook his head, feigning exasperation. "The rumors will never stop, you know, now that you've encouraged them."

"Yes, but I did give them something to think about, didn't I?" Laurent said. "Or are you just upset that you're thinking about it too?"

Try as he might, Damen still could never quite predict what Laurent was going to say. The frustrating part was that Laurent, as usual, was right--Damen had been thinking about it. Casting about for a change of subject, he said, "So, you like the stars?"

Laurent stilled next to him. Damen looked at him, trying to figure out how he had managed to upset him with so innocent a subject. Laurent's eyes didn't move from the sky, and Damen watched as a muscle twitched in his jaw. It looked like Laurent was trying to decide whether or not to speak.

Just when Damen had resigned himself to tense silence, Laurent began to talk.

"When I was younger, I used to have nightmares. I would wake in my rooms, and I always had a hard time going back to sleep. I had this terrace attached to my room, and I would go out there just to feel the cool air on my face." He paused, looking at Damen. Damen held his breath, unwilling to do anything to shatter this moment of stark openness, such a rare thing with Laurent.

Laurent watched him as he continued. "Auguste's rooms were attached to the terrace as well."

Damen forced his pulse to behave at the mention of Auguste's name. He forced his face to remain smooth under Laurent's scrutiny. "You don't have to...." he said, his voice rather rougher than usual, but Laurent interrupted him.

"Auguste figured out what was happening after a while. He found me one night on the terrace, after a particularly bad nightmare. He stood next to me and began pointing out constellations, naming them. It calmed me. It became our ritual. I asked him once what would happened when he became King. If he would leave me behind, forgotten. He told me, 'Never. Not until the end of the stars.' It became a phrase we used with each other. A stolen moment for brothers."

Damen's chest was tight, his breaths painful. His thoughts were a tangle of warring emotions. Guilt over killing Auguste. Wonder at getting a peek into the child that Laurent had been. Bitter regret at Laurent's lost childhood, which he himself had ended when he ensured Auguste never came home from Marlas.

Laurent was watching him. Damen struggled to keep his face impassive. He said nothing.

After a moment, Laurent continued, his tone quiet and purposeful. "Before Auguste left for the battle at Marlas, he came to see me. I was angry. I didn't want him to go. Even at thirteen, I understood what could happen. I could never have imagined I would lose both him and my father that day." Laurent's eyes were still on Damen's face, but his expression was distant, his eyes seeing something other than the man standing in front of him, his mind living a different day. 

Damen didn't want him to continue. He didn't want to hear this. He felt like he was invading a private moment, a place he was very much not welcome. He wished he could walk away. He wished he could go back and stop himself from unwittingly inviting this story. He wished he could go back to thinking about kissing Laurent under the stars.

"I yelled. I cried. I threw a tantrum with all the questionable dignity a thirteen-year-old could muster. Finally, Auguste put his hand on my shoulder and told me, 'Laurent. I promise I'll be back. Remember? You and I, until the end of the stars.'" Laurent swallowed. Damen felt sick.

Laurent slowly returned to the present. Damen looked straight into his eyes, the color absent in this light. "I made a promise too, after. A promise to Damianos."

Damen's hand twitched at his name, and he hoped Laurent didn't notice it. He pulled all of his will into keeping himself still. He did not look away. He owed Laurent that, at least. He would not be such a coward as to turn away from this, though he longed to. This was his penance for the wrong he had not truly known he had inflicted until this very moment.

Laurent turned his body to face him fully, half his face in shadow, the other half lit in stark silver light. He stood very close to Damen, but instead of wanting to reach out for Laurent, Damen had to repress a flinch from his proximity. How strange that a moment could change so much.

"I promised Damianos that, one day, I would find him. That it would be just me and him, beyond the end of the stars."

Damen felt something snap in his chest, a ragged hole blown open by Laurent's words. He wanted to gasp for breath, to clutch at his skin as if to keep himself whole and together, but he could do nothing while Laurent watched. He let the story sink into him like a sword, raising no defense against it.

Laurent pinned him with his gaze for a moment, and then he turned and left, returning to camp.

Damen did not follow.

Chapter Text

Damen endured a markedly exaggerated number of remarks the next day about his and Laurent's private preferences, increasingly vulgar as the day wore on. It had not escaped notice that Damen had not refuted the Prince last night, and it had also not escaped notice that Damen and Laurent had left the fire together, in the opposite direction of their tent. The taunts were endless.

"There is something to be said about fucking outside. Getting back to nature, as it is."

"Is it true, then? Is he the one that gets a leg up over you? Now that's an image..."

"So he likes it romantic, huh? Fucking underneath the stars? Wouldn't have thought him the type."

Though he had refuted each and every comment calmly and without emotion, as he always did when it was suggested that he was fucking Laurent, the last snapped his patience.

He rounded on the man, using his full, considerable height to his advantage. In his anger, his response came out in Akielon."Do not think you know either me or the Prince. And what business is it of yours what we do? We aren't fucking, but if we were, I would challenge you to a duel here and now for your loose tongue. He deserves your loyalty and respect. He is a better man that us both. Now get back to work, soldier, and next time you want to say anything about the Prince that isn't glowing admiration, I suggest you check very carefully to make sure I'm not around to hear it."

Though the poor man had no indication of what Damen had actually said to him, the tone was clear. He departed, wide-eyed, nearly tripping over a saddle in his haste to put distance between him and Damen.

Damen stood there for a moment, gathering himself until his breaths were even and controlled once more. He was grateful no one here spoke Akielon. He had been withstanding comments such as these for months, ever since he had come to be a bed slave for Laurent. They had never bothered him. And yet suddenly here he was, raging at a poor young man of maybe nineteen, who had made probably the least offensive comment of them all, simply for using the word stars.

He let out one last deep breath, bringing his hands up to rub his temples. He had to get himself together. It was understandable, the thoughts he had been having the last few weeks. After all, he spent nearly every moment with Laurent, and anyone would be taken in by his beauty. Add wine and firelight--what chance did he have? But when they reached the border, Damen would depart, returning to take back his throne in Ios, and Laurent would resume his role as an enemy. There was no place in their narrative for sentiment.

Turning around to finish saddling his horse, Damen stopped short and stared into the bright blue gaze of the only other person in the camp besides himself who understood Akielon.

Laurent's steady gaze held Damen to the spot. His expression was as unreadable as always, but Damen had the distinct impression of being seen straight through to his core. Laurent stood easily, a hand resting on the flank of his horse beside him. Nothing in him betrayed that he had overheard anything.

Clearing his throat, Damen spoke. "Your Highness. We'll be ready to ride out when you give the order."

Still staring at him, Laurent said nothing for a moment. Finally, he turned to mount his horse gracefully and effortlessly, gathering the reins in his hands. "Good. We ride out now."

Damen turned to relay the order to Jord, who then shouted the order to the rest of the men. The company, quick and efficient after these weeks together, rode out as one. Damen mounted his own horse and took his place to the right of Laurent, wondering if Laurent had heard anything, praying that he hadn't.

He didn't have to wait long to find out.

After half an hour of riding in silence, Laurent's horse was startled by a snake in the grass at its feet. Rearing high, the horse would have tossed a mediocre rider. But Laurent, gathering the reins steadily in his hands, leaned forward and balanced himself in the saddle before guiding the horse back to the ground. Murmuring slowly in the horse's ear, Laurent stroked its neck slowly, until the horse was calm, its flaring nostrils the only remaining sign of its fright. Damen stared.

Looking up, Laurent caught Damen's look. "What? Did you think I had not been trained to properly handle a frightened horse?"

"Of course you were," Damen responded. "I just never thought I'd see you handle anything with such a gentle touch."

Laurent looked at him, a wicked gleam in his eye. "I am capable of kindness, barbarian." A touch of a smile curved his lips as he glanced at Damen. A tendril of dread threaded up through Damen's chest. "In fact, word around camp is that I'm a better man than even you."

Damen closed his eyes, recognizing his own foolish words from earlier. Before he could form a response, Laurent continued.

"While I appreciate you defending my honor, I assure you that doing so in Akielon is not the most effective deliverance. Usually threats are more effective in a language the person you're threatening actually speaks. Though it did, I'll admit, add something to the performance. That poor young man, at least, won't be making any comments about the two of us again. Probably."

"You can't just say 'thank you,' can you?" Damen growled, annoyance and embarrassment fighting each other for dominance within him.

Laurent was silent for a moment. Then, softer, "That depends. Did you mean it?"

Damen looked at Laurent, who, for once, was not looking back at him. He was holding himself tall and straight in the saddle, the sun gilding his hair in a golden halo. He was looking casually ahead, though his air of disinterest was given away by the glance he threw at Damen. A month ago, Damen wouldn't have been able to read Laurent's expression at all. But now, he found that he could easily tell that Laurent was waiting for a response, and that he cared about what that response would be.

Damen met his glance with a long one of his own, and then turned to squint into the sun. Quietly but firmly, he said, "Yes. I meant every word."

Damen could feel Laurent looking at him, but did not turn to see his expression, unreasonably afraid that his admission would be met with indifference or hostility. The moment stretched long between them, strung like silk across the air.

When Laurent spoke, Damen was unprepared for his words. "Thank you," Laurent said, the words uncharacteristically genuine and nearly too quiet to hear.

Surprised, Damen turned to Laurent, but Laurent had nudged his heels into his horse's side, spurring him ahead a few lengths, too far forward for Damen to see his face. Laurent was joined a few minutes later by another rider, a messenger. Damen watched as he scanned the message, then nodded sharply to the messenger. The rider wheeled his mount and rode back the way he came.

Laurent did not return to his side.

*****

It was clear that night around the fire that word had spread of Damen's violent outburst. As Damen sat down next to Jord, accepting a cup of wine, he saw that Jord was grinning at him.

"Is it true you threatened to cut a poor soldier's balls off and feed them to him before leaving him in the stream to rot?" he asked, trying to contain his mirth.

"Wha...no, of course not!" Damen exclaimed. "Where did you hear that?"

"Word is you yelled in Akielon for ten minutes after he suggested you fucked the Prince in the woods. The soldiers only had your tone to go off, and their imaginations are not lacking."

"It was only two minutes," Damen grumbled, looking into the fire. "And I didn't threaten him. Much."

Jord laughed low and appreciatively. He let his laughter trail into a comfortable silence. Then: "You never let those comments get to you. What happened?"

Damen reached up to rub a sore spot on his shoulder, then let it fall to his side with a sigh. "I...there are some things that should be left private. I'm not talking about fucking--I don't care about that. I just....the Prince is more than he seems. He deserves more than that."

Jord was quiet for a long moment. Damen looked across the fire to where Laurent sat, oblivious to their quiet conversation. He couldn't forget the way Laurent had looked at the stars, open and wondering, or the gentleness with which he had calmed the horse. He even found himself thinking, over and over, about the sound of his name on Laurent's lips: Damianos. How Damen wished he could hear him say it, just once, without hatred or anger, knowing it belonged to the man who stood in front of him. Damianos. He closed his eyes, thinking of all the ways he would like to hear his name from Laurent's mouth. Damianos. A sigh, a whisper, a promise.

Next to him, Jord sighed, dragging him out of his thoughts.

"Listen, Damen. I'm only going to say this once, and then I'm going to let it be. I see the way you look at him." Damen opened his mouth to argue, but Jord put his hand up, stopping him. "No. Let me get it out. You need to hear it.

"The Prince is a good man, and I would have him rule this country. I will do whatever it takes to win him his throne. Now, against my better instincts, I like you. You are also a good man. Honest. Hard-working. Kind. But you are Akielon. You are a slave. If all we are working for succeeds, and we get Laurent on the throne, there is no place for you beside him. You cannot tell me that you would be content to be a bed slave to him for the rest of your days. We both know that one day, you will return to Akielos.

"I see the way he looks at you, too. I have no say in what the two of you decide to do in your own time, and heavens knows I would like to see the Prince smile again. But remember who you are. Remember who he is. I'm trying to spare you both harm--do not forget that one day we will reach the border, and you will both have to make a decision of where your loyalty lies."

Damen gazed at the fire, his stomach a knot of ice. Jord laid his hand gently on Damen's shoulder, then got up and left him to his thoughts.

Remember who you are.

He was Damianos, prince-killer, rightful heir to the throne of Akielos.

He was a slave, a prisoner to a rival prince, his greatest enemy.

And, impossibly, he was falling in love with Laurent of Vere.

*****

That night, at their usual table, Laurent and Damen discussed tactics. Candles burned low as the night approached its deepest hour. Finally, Laurent got up from the table.

"You look exhausted," he told Damen. "Am I finally wearing you out?"

Damen gave him a tired smile. "Please. The day I'm worn out by you will be a sad day indeed. The men would never let me forget it. You're half my size."

Damen was rewarded with a small smile from Laurent. Then: "Good. If you're not tired, then I'll need your assistance. Come, attend me."

Damen sat, frozen, for a moment. His desire to be close to Laurent warred with his good sense, and with Jord's earlier words. He was no longer tired. His body thrummed with nervous energy. He swallowed, hard, forcing himself to remember how catastrophically things had ended for him the last time he had lingered too close to Laurent's body.

Laurent watched him, an eyebrow raised. "Well? Are my scary Veretian clothes intimidating you? I can see why you would be frightened. Barbarians as large as yourself often lack the dexterity to handle things delicately. But I do ask that you try not to simply use brute force. This is my best jacket. I'm rather fond of it."

Slowly, Damen rose from his chair. He approached Laurent carefully, somehow feeling like he was the prey and Laurent was the predator, no matter how much larger he was, no matter that it had been a long time since he truly thought Laurent would hurt him again. Laurent turned, exposing the laces that began at the nape of his neck. Damen closed his eyes for a moment, calming his breath. Even though he was mostly sure it wouldn't happen, he was not particularly interested in giving Laurent any reason to have him on the cross again.

"If I didn't know how you came to be a slave, I would return you to Kastor as faulty. You must be the slowest slave to ever come out of Akielos. I grow old where I stand, waiting for you," Laurent said, turning his head slightly to glance over his shoulder, his tone light and teasing.

"You talk more when you're nervous," Damen murmured. He brought his fingers up to the top lace, feeling clumsy and warm. Laurent's hair prevented him from undoing the lace, so he brushed it to the side, the very tips of his fingers grazing Laurent's skin. He swore he felt a tiny shiver run through Laurent.

He was standing very close. If he took one step, his body would be flush with Laurent's. He was sure that his heartbeat was pounding through the space between them hard enough for Laurent to feel it. Though he tried to still his breaths, he could see Laurent's hair shift with each exhale. He was in very dangerous territory.

He didn't know if it was his lust-addled preoccupation, his exhaustion, or just pure stupidity that made him say what he said next.

"I'm sorry I made you talk about your brother. Last night. I didn't...I thought it an innocent question. I would never..."

He felt Laurent turn to stone beneath his fingers. Damen could feel the hot memory of a whip on his back.

Then, miraculously, he felt Laurent force himself to relax again, muscle by muscle. Damen did not move. His fingers stayed very still on the laces. He thought that if he disturbed the moment even a little, it would come crashing down into disaster.

Very quietly, so quietly that Damen wouldn't have heard him clearly if he hadn't been standing so close, Laurent said, "I know you didn't. You....Why do you make it so damn easy to forgive you?"

Damen's fingers tangled in the lace he was undoing. He cursed whoever had decided to make Veretian clothing so damn complicated. It took him a moment to gather the words and force ease into them.

"Do you want to hate me?" He asked. His voice was a rumble in Laurent's ear, quiet and low. He longed to brush his lips along the pale skin beneath Laurent's jaw. He thought he saw Laurent's eyes flutter closed, though he couldn't tell from this angle.

"Don't you want to hate me?" Laurent asked, his voice still quiet but surprisingly full of feeling. "I enslaved you. Hurt you. Humiliated you. The gold collar around your neck tells everyone who sees you that you belong to me. I know you hate it. I know you long to be free. You should hate me for that."

He was right. Damen yearned to still have the capacity to hate Laurent. He detested the weight around his neck that declared him worthless, nothing but a plaything for a prince. His skin craved the warm sun of Akielos, the salty air of the cliffs of Ios, the sweet shade of his mother's gardens. He wanted to blame Laurent for that. For so long, in the beginning, he had. He had loathed him.

And that had been so much easier than this.

"You are not the one who betrayed me and chained me. You did not tear me from my home, from my family." He paused, gathering himself for what he was about to say, unable to believe he was about to say it.

"If I had to belong to somebody, I'm glad that it was you."

Laurent's breath caught in his throat. Damen simultaneously wished he could see Laurent's face and was glad he couldn't. Damen was nearly done with the laces on the back of Laurent's jacket, which was taking much longer than it should, but Laurent didn't seem to care. Silence gathered around them, as heavy as the gold he wore.

Damen finished with the laces. He slid his hands slowly underneath, every touch feeling illicit and electrifying, drawing the jacket off. He laid in on the chair next to him.

Laurent turned to him, looking younger and gentler in his simple white shirt. They were still close, close enough that Damen could count his eyelashes. It would be so easy to reach out. So easy to slide his hand around Laurent's neck, to pull him close and kiss him. He longed to feel Laurent soften beneath him, to relax into a long, slow embrace.

Damen's eyes caught on a loose strand of golden hair that had fallen forward to lay against Laurent's cheek. Unthinkingly, he reached out and gently moved it back, tucking it behind Laurent's ear. His fingers lingered on the skin of Laurent's jaw.

As if coming out of a daze, Laurent jerked back, out of Damen's reach. Damen's hand fell back to his side.

Laurent spoke, his eyes on Damen's. "Tell me something."

"Anything."

Laurent took his time with the words, each placed with painful intent. "Did you ever meet Damianos of Akielos?"

Damen nearly stumbled. Only pure shock kept him still. He fought to control himself, to push down his panic, to contain his breath. Laurent could not have paralyzed him more efficiently if he had slid a knife between his ribs. He could not look away from Laurent's gaze.

"Yes." His voice came out strange.

"Tell me. What was he like?"

Damen knew he was dancing on a thin blade, knew he could accidentally reveal himself at any moment with the wrong word.

"He was..." Damen grasped for the right thing to tell Laurent. Casting around his mind, he settled on a truth he had been hiding, a truth he had not yet admitted to himself. "He was a fool."

Surprise widened Laurent's blue eyes. "What did you say?"

Damen swallowed. "He knew nothing of the world but his own sheltered corner. He was so arrogant, so sure of his title, that he was blind to any threat. It is no surprise that Kastor was able to usurp him. He was naive, too naive to ever mistrust his family. He did nothing but dance and fight and fuck." Damen couldn't keep the bitterness out of his tone. "A proud prince on a crumbling throne."

Something had shattered inside Damen. Suddenly, now that he had begun to tell the truth, he could not bear to tell another lie. He could not bear to stand here and spend one more minute earning false trust from the man in front of him. He would take the consequences as they came, but Laurent deserved to know who he was.

He wanted to face Laurent, for the first time ever, as himself.

"Laurent, I have to tell you something," Damen said, not thinking through his words. At the sound of his name, Laurent stepped back, and Damen realized that he had never called him that to his face.

"We're using first names, now, are we?" Laurent said. "That's presumptuous, from a slave."

Damen closed his eyes briefly, then pressed on. "I'm sorry, but this is important. I have to tell you...."

"Don't," Laurent interrupted.

"But--"

"Since we seem to have progressed to easy familiarity, I would like to call you by your given name, too." A pause. "Damianos."

Damen's vision narrowed, black spots forming at the edges. He felt his face contort with shock and pain. He could not look away from the calm, blue eyes that held him captive.

"Did you think I would not know? Did you think that I had you beaten to within an inch of your life simply for your indiscretion in the baths? I have thought of you every single day since I was thirteen. You have been my obsession. I have thought about every possible way that our paths would meet. I never dreamed you would be hand-delivered to my feet, bound and chained."

There was a strange ringing in Damen's ears. His chest was tight. He couldn't get enough air in his lungs. His head felt fuzzy, as if he had drank too much the night before. He stumbled back a step, fighting to stay on his feet.

"I trained in the sword ring every day, hours past when my lesson was done. I learned Akielon fighting tactics, and learned counterattacks to them. I learned the language, the politics, the land. All for the day I would finally face you."

Damen felt like he had been hit over the head, or like he had been drugged. The room spun slightly, Laurent the only clear thing in his vision.

"So here we stand. No more lies between us. Do you wish for that knife, now?"

Damen took another step back, braced himself on the back of the chair. He couldn't think. He couldn't....

"I made you a promise, Damianos. I promised it in another life. I spent every moment preparing for the one where I stood, finally facing you as the brother of the man you killed. And here we are, beyond the end of the stars."

It was too much. Damen broke away from Laurent's unwavering stare. Unseeing, unthinking, he lurched to the entrance of the tent, threw back the flap, and disappeared out into the night.

 

Chapter Text

Damen's feet carried him away from Laurent, seemingly under their own command. He didn't know where he was going. He just knew that he couldn't stay in that tent, under the flame of those too-bright eyes. He had wanted Laurent to know the truth, but he had never been prepared to learn that Laurent had known since the beginning. Snippets and flashes of memories came back to him, too quick for him to make any sense of them.

Laurent, his face white as he looked upon Damen for the first time.

'Why do you give me good advice?'

Laurent, pressed against him on a balcony, laughing into his chest, free and joyous in the night air.

'I intend to survive, I intend to beat my uncle, and I will fight with every weapon that I have.'

Laurent, offering him a sweemeat, Damen chained and bound at his feet.

'It's the game I like.'

Damen shook his head as if he could dislodge the thoughts and images, as if he could leave them strewn behind him, forgotten on the ground. But, as his feet carried him out of camp and into a wooded grove, they kept coming, breaking against him like waves on the shore. Branches hit his face, scratching his skin and snapping painfully against his limbs. He barely even noticed. The pain in his chest drowned everything else out. 

Laurent, staring straight at Damen as a whip fell over and over again, splitting his skin, spilling his blood.

'Damianos of Akielos was commanding troops at seventeen. At nineteen, he rode onto the field, cut a path through our finest men, and took my brother's life.'

Laurent, looking up at the stars, his youth and beauty raw and open in the night.

'You remind me of him. He was the best man I have ever known. You deserve to know that, as you deserve at least a fair... I was angry. Angry, that isn’t the word.'

Laurent, lit in the gold of the firelight, laughing with the men he would one day rule, looking over to meet Damen's eyes through the flames, holding his gaze while time froze around them.

'To get what you want, you have to know exactly how much you are willing to give up.'

The conversations and memories came at random, out of order, flashing one after another through Damen's mind. A tangled mess of things Laurent had said and done flashed through him, teasing words and hateful moments, vicious phrases and tenuous trust. How they had hated each other, in the beginning. How they had trusted each other, at the end. How could Laurent hold such contradiction inside himself? And, more importantly....which was the true Laurent?

Damen came to a halting stop, leaning his back against the trunk of a tree. He didn't know how far he had come or how much time had passed. His breathing was ragged, as if he had been running, though he had no memory of doing so. He slid down the trunk of the tree, sitting at its base, reaching up to run both hands through his hair.

Out of the confusion and shock of Damen's mind, every interaction, every conversation he had ever had with Laurent was rearranging itself around one single, battering thought: Laurent had known. Laurent had known who Damen was from the very beginning.

Had anything been real? Or was this all part of Laurent's twisted game, a grand design that he had spun around Damen, a trap that Damen had fallen into easily and willingly? Was this his revenge? To lure Damen in, to taunt him with whispers and touches and growing closeness, so that Damen would break when it was stolen from him? He thought of Laurent stepping in against his uncle to save Damen's life. He thought of the sound of Laurent's laughter, unable to contain himself even on the brink of being captured in Nesson-Eloy. He thought of how close he had come to kissing Laurent before the truth had torn a gaping hole in his entire world. 

Damen knew his unthinking inclination to trust had lost him his throne. He knew it was naive to the point of stupidity to think that Laurent would have begun to have true feelings for him, the man Laurent had sworn revenge on, the man who had killed his brother and best friend. He knew that if he returned to Laurent, he was courting death.

Damen, entirely alone here in the night, knew it was foolish to hope. He knew that it was dangerous beyond reason to go back. And yet, as his thoughts grew clearer and his mind quieter, he found that he wished, above all else, that it had not all been a lie. He wished for a path forward for him and Laurent that ended, not in bloodshed, but in trust and forgiveness.

If he was being truly honest with himself, he wanted more than that. He wanted Laurent to look at him and to know him. He wanted to find out what was hidden beneath those walls, those masks, that biting tongue. He wanted to know what it felt like when Laurent let his defenses go, to be the one who Laurent opened himself up to. He wanted to to see what Laurent looked like when he was completely and totally undone.

Steeling himself in the dark, Damen made a decision. He would find his way back to Laurent, once he had calmed himself. And when he did, he would face whatever consequences were waiting for him. But if there was any part of the last month that had been true, he would grasp it. He would fight for it. He would not let it slip through his fingers. He had lost too much recently. He refused to let go of the only thing he had left. 

Damen rose to his feet, closing his eyes as he felt his decision settling into his bones, gathering himself to turn back towards the camp, towards Laurent.

If he hadn't been so distracted, Damen would have been alert to the presence of someone else in the trees. If he hadn't been so consumed by Laurent's revelation and the aftershocks of it, Damen would have heard the snap of the twig behind him. If his strength hadn't been sapped by shock and exertion, it would have been nearly impossible for a mere two men to sneak up on him and subdue him. In any other moment, Damianos of Akielos would have never been captured in the woods outside the camp.

But as it was, by the time Damen realized what was happening, his hands were already bound behind him, and a hood was already over his head, blinding him.

The last thing Damen knew was a sharp blow to his head, and then there was only darkness.

*****

When Damen came to, he was aware at first only of his pounding head. He allowed himself a small moment of self-pity--he was having a colossally bad night. A small throb of anger at being detained from returning to finish things with Laurent pulsed through him. Pushing that aside, he began to assess his situation.

He was lying on his side, the hood still on his head, his hands still bound behind him. The fabric over his head let in the suggestion of light, so it was either daytime or he was in a lit room somewhere. He could hear movement, but it was not in the room with him...a tent then, maybe, with people moving outside of it. He took an assessment of his body. Beside his pounding head and his sore shoulders where they strained against the bonds, he seemed to have sustained no other injuries in the capture.

He tested the bonds on his hands, and found them too well tied to escape without something to aid him. He scolded himself for being so caught up in his mind that he had allowed himself to be taken unawares. Damianos, prince-killer, rightful king of Akielos, subdued because he had been daydreaming about Laurent of Vere. Jokaste would love to see him now, bound and helpless once more, his attraction to blond hair and blue eyes again leading him to disaster.

A sound of people drawing back a tent flap made him stop cursing himself and his stupidity. Footsteps drew next to him--two people, he thought from the sound. He felt hands on either side of him, pulling him awkwardly to his knees. Another set of footsteps walked past to stand in front of him.

"Take off the hood. Let me see the face of the man who was trying to sneak up on us in the woods."

At the sound of that commanding voice, Damen went completely still. The strangeness of this night was never going to end.

As the hood was drawn roughly over his head, he blinked at the sudden brightness of the well-lit tent, then looked up into the face of his old friend, Nikandros.

He saw the exact moment that Nikandros recognized him. His face rearranged itself, passing from an expression of hard control to one of shocked disbelief, the color draining from his skin. He took a step back, and Damen would have laughed at how off-balance he was at Damen's appearance if it hadn't been such a serious situation.

"Hello, Nikandros. Nice to see that you still offer a warm welcome to your friends."

Nikandros stared at him. "I...you....this isn't possible. You're dead."

"I do have quite the headache, but other than that, I can assure you that I feel very much alive at the moment."

Nikandros was silent for a long moment, his mouth opening and closing without words, emotions flitting over his face quicker than Damen could follow. Then sense seemed to rush back into him.

"Don't just stand there, release him! Don't you see that this is your king?" Nikandros ordered to his men. Fumbling over the bonds, they cut them, and Damen pulled his arms in front of him, rubbing his wrists. Nikandros dropped helplessly to his knees in front of Damen. The look of shock had been replaced by a look of wonder.

"Damianos. I cannot believe my own eyes. I never thought to see you again, my friend." He bowed his head, and, taking one of Damen's hands in his own, kissed it. "My king."

Then his entire body stiffened, though he did not move from his bowed position over Damen's hand. Damen, confused, followed his gaze and found his gold slave cuff glinting in the light of the tent. He closed his eyes briefly.

"Nikandros--"

"Damen. What....who has done this to you?" Outrage glittered in his eyes. "We must remove these at once. Before anyone else sees them."

"No."

Nikandros raised his gaze to Damen's at the sharp word. His eyes searched Damen's face, trying to understand what was happening. Disbelief was slowly flooding into his expression.

"You want your people to see you as a slave? As a ... There is not a soul in Akielos who doesn't know what these mean. The gold gives a very good indication of what you have been doing these past months, Damianos. Tell me, in whose bed did you serve?"

Heat flooded Damen's skin. "I served in no man's bed, Nikandros. Do not assume you know anything of what has happened to me these past months. The collar stays. The cuffs stay." He said it as a king. He held Nikandros' gaze as the other man fought a war within himself between speaking his mind and obeying his king. Finally, Nikandros dropped his eyes.

Sighing, Damen let go of the rush of anger that had overcome him. "Nikandros, come, let us at least revel in the joy of our reunion for a little while before returning to hard subjects."

Getting to his feet, Damen offered a gold-cuffed hand to Nikandros. Nikandros stared at him from his knees, and then Damen saw his expression slowly soften, a grudging smile gracing his lips, before he grasped Damen's forearm and allowed himself to be raised to his feet by his friend, his prince, his king.

*****

Nikandros ordered food and wine brought to the tent, which Damen was immensely grateful for. He was surprised to find that he was famished. His night had been long and arduous, and he remembered with grim amusement that he had thought himself exhausted even before everything had fallen apart.

Nikandros could see that Damen was barely keeping himself standing. "I'm having a tent prepared for you now. Most of what we must discuss can wait until the morning. But I must ask--I must know. What happened, Damianos? Why did Kastor not kill you?"

Damen had asked himself the same question, but he felt like, slowly, the grand picture was beginning to form before him. Months of learning the art of manipulation and deception at Laurent's side had given him insight he had never considered before. "You tried to warn me, Nikandros. I should have listened. I was a fool. I trusted blindly, sure of my power, sure of Kastor's loyalty. I'm sorry."

Nikandros sighed. "I wanted to be wrong. The morning I woke to the news...I have never wanted to be wrong more than in that moment. I mourned you. Kastor will never be my king. He never was."

Damen grasped Nikandros' shoulder gently, overwhelmed with the loyalty Nikandros had kept for him even when he had thought Damen dead. Then he began his story. He told Nikandros how he had been overtaken in his rooms, his slaves killed in front of him. How he had been brought down to the slave baths, stripped and humiliated and chained. How Jokaste had come to taunt him with her betrayal. How he had been drugged and shipped to Vere to be a slave.

"I was so confused about why I wasn't dead. I waited for the killing blow. But I think now that, though he risked everything by keeping me alive, Kastor sent me to the one place that he knew I would most suffer. I couldn't tell anyone who I was, for they would kill me immediately if they knew I was Damianos. And he knew that nothing would cause me pain like serving at the feet of my most hated enemies."

Nikandros had listened to the story with stony silence, his knuckles white where they clenched the table. Damen watched as he tried to control his anger. "Who were you given to? What..." He took a moment to gather himself before continuing, clearly hating the words he was about to say. "What did they do to you?"

Damen shook his head. He didn't have it in him to tell Nikandros the things that had happened in Arles, not tonight. And he couldn't bring himself to tell Nikandros that he had been the private slave of the Prince of Vere. His heart was still too raw, and he couldn't bear to see the horror in Nik's eyes. It would take far too long to explain that Laurent was not who he appeared, and Damen wanted nothing but to collapse into bed and escape his clamoring thoughts.

"Tomorrow, Nikandros. We will discuss it all tomorrow. I will tell you all that has befallen me, and you can tell me what you are doing so far North. I am dead on my feet. It has been...a very strange evening."

Nikandros pushed out his breath in amusement at that, clearly in agreement. He had surely not expected to find his thought-to-be dead prince hiding in the woods outside his camp. But for Damen, this night had been so much more.

"Damianos--I am truly glad to see you. I..." he broke off. Damen nodded to show that he understood the words Nikandros was struggling to find. His heart, too, was full at the sight of his friend. Nikandros cleared his throat, breaking the moment. "Come. I'll show you to your tent, and you can sleep undisturbed. We will untangle the rest tomorrow."

Collapsing into silks, stealing a moment before his weariness carried him into dreamless sleep, Damen turned his thoughts back to Laurent. He needed to return to him, though Nikandros' presence complicated things a great deal. If only he could see Laurent, could speak to him, he could find a way to make things right.

Tonight I sleep for the first time again as Damianos, he thought, and tomorrow I will find a way to face Laurent, finally as my true self.

He closed his eyes and sleep washed over him, heavy and obliterating.

*****

The next morning, Damen awoke as a king.

He turned in his silk to look to Laurent's bed, only to experience a moment of dizzy confusion as he realized that he was not in Laurent's tent, but in an Akielon camp. Damen had always thought he would feel more joy at returning to his people and his country, but instead he strangely felt a sense of loss. He would not sit around a campfire with Jord and Lazar and the others again. He would not spend late nights discussing ways to unseat the Regent. Unbeknownst to him, he had enjoyed the last few weeks with the Veretian men. He knew his place and his duty, but he mourned the loss of easy companionship that he must give up.

Sitting up, Damen sighed. He had a long morning ahead of him. He needed to put Laurent and his men behind him, for now. It would take all his energy to keep Nikandros in check when he discovered whose ownership Damen had been under. It would be even harder to convince Nikandros that Laurent was not an enemy. Being a king is already taxing, Damen thought to himself before rising to ready himself for the morning.

Word had spread through the camp since Damen's arrival last night, and soldiers fell to their knees around him as he exited his tent to find Nikandros. Damen took in a deep breath. Not so long ago, he wouldn't have even paused at this attention. It was no different than how royalty was always greeted, no different that how people had acted around his father. But now, his own knees remembered how it felt to kneel.

He was saved from his thoughts by the arrival of Nikandros, who grasped his elbow and guided him through camp. "I had a meeting tent prepared for you. We plan on staying here for a few days, and you'll need a place to speak privately with your commanders. I'm afraid you'll have to entertain at least one night as well. These soldiers all thought you were dead. They need to see you."

Damen had expected it. He could not simply walk into the camp and rely on word-of-mouth. Regaining his throne in Ios did not just involve military strength. It also required working to regain the loyalty of the Akielons, who would be guilty of treason if Damen was not successful. Damen was facing months of hard work.

They approached a large golden tent, extravagantly draped in silks. Damen realized with a jolt that he found himself assuming it had to be for Laurent, not him. He shook his head. He had to stop thinking like a slave. It was time for him to be a king, even if his gold cuffs and collar said otherwise.

Damen was trying to figure out how he was going to explain Laurent to Nikandros. He owed Nikandros the truth, all of it, but he also needed to find a way to convince Nikandros to let him return to Laurent, and he was fairly sure he knew how his old friend was going to react. It was not going to be a fun morning.

Nikandros pulled back the entrance flap to the enormous tent, allowing Damen to duck into it. Nikandros entered just behind him. Damen's eyes traveled over the room within, taking in the six sturdy poles that held up the tent, the large table that dominated the center, the sides that could be drawn up when it was time to entertain large crowds. It took him a moment to see that Nikandros had erected a dais at one end of the tent, and upon the dais rose a throne.

Damen stopped dead, Nikandros doing the same beside him.

It wasn't the dais nor the throne that shocked him. No, what froze Damen in his place was the figure who sat upon it, his blue eyes sparking with familiar cold amusement and disdain.

A golden prince on a stolen throne.

*****

 

 

Chapter Text

Laurent was sprawled across the throne with all the insult and contempt that he was capable of, which, of course, was considerable. One of his legs was draped over the arm of it, his boot tapping insolently against the side. He smiled as he looked at Damen. The smile was not pleasant.

Damen knew that there should be some semblance of normal reactions in his head, that he should be angry, or insulted, or nervous. He should be worried that Laurent and Nikandros were in the same room; that one or both of them might be in danger from the other. He should be wondering how Laurent had bargained or slithered or tricked his way into an enemy camp, right into the king's own command tent.

And yet, with grudging fondness, Damen's only coherent thought was, Of course Laurent would find a way to sit on my own throne before I even knew it was here.

He didn't let himself examine the bright flood of joy that had pooled in his chest at the sight of Laurent. He forced himself to remember that their last interaction had been far from ideal, and reminded himself that there was no chance that the next few minutes weren't going to be extremely uncomfortable, at best.

Laurent spoke into the hard silence. "You know, I'd heard of Akielon hospitality, but I must say, I'm disappointed. I've been here for at least half an hour and no one has even offered me a drink."

Damen chanced a glance at Nikandros. He had to, absurdly, force himself not to laugh; Nikandros was apparently so angry he couldn't speak, his jaw clenched, his face red. He looked like he had been punched. Which, to be fair, he might as well have been. Laurent had that effect on people.

He closed his eyes briefly, preparing himself for the disaster that was about to occur, and which he had no power to stop. Looking back to Laurent, whose eyes had never left him, Damen spoke. "Nikandros, it would seem that I have no choice but to introduce you. This is Laurent, the Prince of Vere."

Damen looked over to Nikandros, whose expression was changing as he watched. He saw him glance at Damen's slave cuffs, then back at Laurent, who was smirking faintly back at him, challenge glittering in his eyes. Damen could almost hear Nikandros piecing things together, guessing the truth. He took in the golden hair, the fair skin, the blue eyes. Then Nikandros turned to look at Damen, his face warring between exasperation and disgust.

"You didn't. Tell me you didn't."

"I--"

Laurent interrupted before Damen could even begin to form his explanation.

"Oh, did he not tell you, Nikandros? And here I thought you two were close friends. Didn't you wonder who Kastor sent Damianos to? You surely didn't think he would be sent to some lowly aristocrat." His eyes turned back to Damen, holding his gaze. "No. Nothing but royalty for the rightful King of Akielos, Damianos Prince-Killer. Why not send him to the brother of the prince who died to give him that name? It has a certain...circularity to it, don't you think?"

All trace of amusement at Laurent's audacity was struck down with those bitter words. Damen wanted to walk up to Laurent, to get it all out in the open. He wanted to push until Laurent opened up to him, to find out whether there was any hope of forgiveness. He wanted to break through the sarcasm and the insults to what must lie underneath. But he couldn't. Not with Nikandros here.

Laurent pulled his leg off the arm of the throne and leaned forward, his head tilted in mock thoughtfulness.

"Shall I tell you what your prince is like in bed, Nikandros? He is not nearly so composed, I can assure you." He paused. "Would you like to know what it takes to make him beg?"

Damen caught Nikandros roughly around the arm as he started angrily towards Laurent, holding him back. He kept his eyes trained on Laurent.

"That's enough, Laurent," he said quietly but firmly. Under the surface, his heart was beating bruises into his ribs. "This is between you and me. Leave Nikandros out of it."

"Oh, that reminds me," Laurent said, turning his attention to Nikandros. "I hope that you don't mind that I rescheduled our meeting. Under the circumstances, this just worked better for me. I do apologize for the inconvenience."

Damen's grip on Nikandros loosened as he tried to process what Laurent was saying. No, he must have misheard. There was no reality in which Nikandros, Kyros of Delpha, and Laurent, Prince of Vere, were allies. Then Damen remembered back to the morning after he had found Laurent under the stars, to a messenger riding up to Laurent, to Laurent's brief nod before the messenger departed. He could feel the shock on his own face.

Laurent had been watching Damen's reaction to this news. "Oh, I do truly love being the only one in the room who knows the full picture," he said, smiling smugly from his perch.

"If you think that our alliance will stand after such insult--" Nikandros began, fury contorting his voice.

"I think you'll find that our alliance will stand." Laurent rose from the throne, graceful and dangerous. He descended down the dais, coming to stand mere feet in front of Damen, his cold regard holding them both where they were. "I think, Nikandros, that you'll find that your prince--your king--will ask you to stand by my side. Am I right, Damianos?"

Damen stood looking back at Laurent, and wanted to say no. He wanted to tell Laurent that he had his own battle to fight, his own throne to win. He wanted to care nothing for Laurent and his plight against his uncle, for Vere and the men who fought for it. He opened his mouth to tell Laurent that he could find other allies to throw precisely-aimed insults at.

What he said instead was, "Nikandros, I need to speak to Laurent." His voice had a new note of command in it, one that could not be disobeyed. "Alone."

*****

Nikandros had been loathe to leave Damen and Laurent alone. He had flat refused at first, his glance straying to the slave cuffs. His implication had been clear.

"Don't worry, his honor is safe with me," Laurent had drawled. "At least, what's left of it."

"Laurent." Damen had warned, putting his fingers to his temple, rubbing a spot that was beginning to throb. It was too early for this. "Nikandros, leave us. That's an order. I was in his company for months. I think I can manage one conversation."

Laurent smiled at Nikandros, looking positively menacing. Nikandros glared back before turning to Damen. "A snake who has laid inert in the grass may choose to strike whenever he likes. You would do well to remember that, even if he does have....certain features that seem to incapacitate you beyond all reason."

With one last poisonous look at Laurent, Nikandros strode from the tent, leaving Damen alone with Laurent.

Laurent looked at Damen, saying nothing. His expression was unreadable, any emotion perfectly locked down beneath the iron gates of his will. So many thoughts ran through Damen's head, so many things he wanted to say.

"I'm sorry I left."

Laurent laughed without humor. "Did you think I didn't expect it? From the first moment in Arles, you've been looking for your out. You were always going to leave. "

"I was going to come back." Damen's voice was soft. "I just needed some time to think, but...I was always going to come back."

Laurent's jaw twitched, the only movement in his face. "And why would you think I wanted you to come back?"

Damen searched Laurent's face. He stepped, carefully, one pace forward, closing the gap between them, and felt a trickle of satisfaction as he saw a flicker of emotion on Laurent's face before he closed it off again. Damen's eyes moved down from Laurent's eyes to his mouth.

"For the same reason I wanted to come back," Damen said, his voice low.

"You presume much, if you think that I would ever harbor feelings for my brother's killer," Laurent said coldly, but his eyes had strayed to Damen's mouth too.

"Do I? So all of the advice I gave you to help you beat your uncle, all of our hours together, the thin tendrils of trust we built...you'll stand there and tell me that it was all a lie?" Damen tried not to show how much he cared about the answer. "It was truth to me," he said after a moment.

"Truth," Laurent said with venom, and Damen saw that his face was even paler than normal, his body tense and rigid. "Tell me the truth, then, Damen. When I had you chained on your knees in front of my court, did you care for me then? Or was it after the whip? Or maybe you have been lying to yourself for so long that you don't know what truth is anymore."

Damen shook his head. "Stop it. That won't work on me. I know you, Laurent. You can try to hurt me all you want, but I'm not leaving."

Laurent was no longer hiding his emotions. His breathing was shallow, and Damen saw that one of his hands was clenched into a fist at his side. "You killed my brother. What do you think will happen, I will forget that and we'll fight side by side and then perhaps we can fuck later?" Laurent's face was all sharp angles, aimed to wound. "I was glad when I heard that your own brother had taken everything from you. I wanted to see your face when you realized that you had lost it all. Because that's what you did to me, when you killed him. You took everything from me."

Damen let that wash over him. He let it hurt, all the more because Laurent was hurting too. Then he reminded himself that this was what Laurent did; he threw out whatever would be the most painful to the person he was talking to, a distraction so he could avoid admitting anything that could be used as weakness.

"Do you think I was thinking of a thirteen year old boy when I went to meet your brother that day?" Damen said, pushing back. "It was war, and he was my enemy. It was that simple."

Laurent stared at him, looking like he had been struck. Then, abruptly, he turned from Damen and strode to the table, leaning on both hands, steadying himself. Without looking back, he said, "Simple. My brother's death was simple to you."

"Laurent, that's not--" Damen began.

"No." The word was a weapon, burying itself into Damen's chest. "Please, tell me how simple it was when you cut him down. How was it done? What simple maneuver did you use?" Laurent still had his back to Damen. "Was it simple when the sword slid into his body? When his breath started to come in sharp gasps?" Laurent flung himself around, facing Damen. Pain was etched in the ice of his gaze. Damen felt something shatter in him at the sight.

"Tell me, Damen. When you looked at him as the life fled his eyes, did you think to yourself, 'Well, at least it was simple'?"

Damen took a helpless step forward, searching for words, needing to bridge the distance that spread between them like a gaping wound. He needed Laurent to understand, he needed to find the words that would heal this. But he couldn't. There were no words that would fix this. He took another step forward, opening his mouth to say something, anything.

"Don't. Don't come near me. Don't tell me you care for me." Laurent's chest was heaving.

Damen looked at him. He held Laurent's gaze purposefully for a moment before saying, quietly, "I do care for you, Laurent. I can't change what happened in Marlas. I can't give Auguste back to you, no matter how much I wish I could. But I can change what happens next. Ask me to, and I give you my word that I will be by your side when you face your uncle."

Laurent looked back at him, and for once, his face was raw with emotion. Damen waited.

When they came, the words were shaky and forced. "Get out." Laurent turned back to brace himself on the table, his head bowed.

Damen didn't point out that it was his tent, and Laurent couldn't order him to leave--couldn't order him to do anything, anymore. He was no longer a slave. He didn't tell Laurent that the collar and cuffs were merely decoration now. It didn't matter.

The words had pierced every fiber of Damen's being. He had told Laurent that he wouldn't leave, but he had pushed too far. If he didn't go now, he might never be able to salvage whatever they had left. Damen swore to himself that he would do whatever it took to find his way back to Laurent.

He stood for a moment, fighting every urge that told him to go to Laurent, to turn him around, to cup his face in both hands and stay until the walls broke down. Then, forcing himself to move against the bitter pain that had flooded the very air of the tent, he turned and he left. 

 

Chapter Text

Nikandros found him sitting on an outcropping of rock out of view of the spread of camp. Damen didn't look at him, just continued to look out over the land and the unbroken blue of the sky. Nikandros paused, standing behind him, then sighed and picked his way over the rocks to sit next to him.

For a little while, they sat together in silence, the company enough in itself. Then, Nikandros spoke. "Laurent's men have joined us in camp. It was uncomfortable, but everything seems to have settled well enough. For Veretians, they seem to be good men." He waited for Damen to respond.

When Damen said nothing, Nikandros tried again. "You're probably wondering how we came to be in alliance. Laurent sent a message to me months ago, asking for aid. He has proof..." Nikandros paused. "Damen, he says he has proof that Kastor and the Regent allied to kill your father and put Kastor on the throne. That's what Laurent offered in return."

Damen closed his eyes. Normally, the information would have been enough to pull the air from his lungs. Now, after his conversation with Laurent, it was just another blow in a day that felt like a battle he never had a chance of winning. Would it never end?

"What happened in there, Damen?" Nikandros said quietly. "I just told you that your brother killed your father before he stole your throne and sold you into slavery. You didn't even flinch. What could Laurent possibly have said to you that would be worse than that?"

Damen opened his eyes. He watched as a flock of birds took flight from a tree, experiencing everything as if from a great distance, as if from outside his own body. "Did you know that Auguste was Laurent's best friend as well as his brother?" He finally said. "After I killed him, Laurent had no one else. For a while he must have turned to his uncle, but clearly that was false. At thirteen, Laurent was alone. I did that."

"It was war, Damen. Auguste was their commander. We all know the risk. We put on our armor and ride in anyways."

"It wasn't Laurent's war. He didn't have a choice. He lost his entire family that day, Nik. My brother has done...unforgivable things, but I still--it would still hurt to lose him. Can you imagine what Laurent felt, when he found out?"

Nikandros was quiet for a moment. Then: "Yes. I know how he must have felt. I thought I lost a brother, too." Damen turned to him, his brow furrowed. Nikandros looked sadly back at him. "I thought I lost you."

Damen was left speechless. The feeling flooding his chest was becoming familiar to him, an ache that settled in deep and sunk its claws in, refusing to let itself be lessened or removed. It was too much to feel, after everything. He clasped Nikandros' shoulder.

Nikandros let the moment exist, untouched, and then he said, "What are you going to do about Laurent?"

Damen rubbed his face with both hands, wishing he had an answer to that question. "I don't know," he told Nikandros helplessly. "How am I supposed to fix this? I can't change what happened. I can't make it better."

Nikandros looked at Damen, clearly trying to disguise his dislike of Laurent in face of Damen's distress. "Damen, I know you don't want to hear this, but maybe it's not something that should be fixed."

"No," Damen replied, his voice cracking slightly. "Listen, Nik, I know what you must think, but he...I..." The words tangled on Damen's tongue. How was he supposed to describe what the last few months had been like? "We never fucked. It...he wasn't kind in the beginning, I'll admit that, but he didn't...use me." The words were difficult to get out.

Nikandros looked like he wanted to be sick, but he remained silent as Damen continued. "He wanted to kill me, for a while. He almost did. I realize now that he wanted to kill me because he knew who I was. But....things changed, Nik. He slowly came to trust me. I don't think that was false. Somehow, even knowing who I am..." Damen trailed off, thinking of starlight confessions, of rooftop chases, of blue eyes filled with sharp amusement...and something more.

"In the end, I was a slave only in name. He hasn't laid a hand on me since Arles. We talk for hours. He's smart, in an annoyingly twisted Veretian way. Smarter than anyone I know. And I know it's hard to see, but he is kind, in a very...quiet way." Damen paused. "He...there's a reason he is the way he is. There has to be. There's something underneath all that acid and ice, Nik. I don't know what. But I want to find out."

Nikandros heard Damen out without comment, watching him closely. Silent for a few moments after Damen finished, he seemed to find whatever he was searching for in Damen's face, and sighed. "Damn it, Damen. Couldn't you have chosen anyone else but the Prince of Vere to fall in love with?"

"I'm not--"

"Please don't lie to me. I grew up with you. I know you, Damianos. Apparently better than you do yourself." He looked at Damen, considering him. "You really didn't fuck him?"

"I'm fairly sure I would have noticed if I had, Nik."

"But you're going to, aren't you?" Nikandros' voice was resigned.

Damen barked out a laugh. "He hates me. I think if I get within ten feet of him right now, I'm twice as likely to lose a limb than to find my way into his bed."

Nikandros raised an eyebrow. "That wasn't a no."

Damen looked at Nikandros, who groaned when he saw Damen's expression. Damen laughed again, his mood lightening a bit. He would find a way to talk to Laurent, hopefully coming out intact on the other side of the encounter. He had told Laurent he wouldn't leave. He didn't plan on it. He wasn't giving up that easily.

Rising to his feet, Damen clapped Nikandros on the shoulder. "Thanks for the talk, Nikandros. It helped." Nikandros just shook his head, looking out over the hills in front of them.

As Damen turned to make his way back to camp, he could have sworn that he heard Nikandros mutter under his breath, "Why did he have to be fucking blond?"

*****

Damen entered camp with a vague idea about tracking down Laurent, though in reality he had no idea where to search. The camp was huge, needing to accommodate all of Nikandros' army. Surely by now Laurent was no longer where Damen had left him, shaking and angry, braced against the table in the command tent. Damen had no idea where Laurent's men had been placed within the camp. He could be anywhere.

Damen was considering the best way to find him when he heard shouts and cheers to his left. Following the sound, Damen found himself on the outside of a large circle of men. Using his full height to observe the center, he saw that he had stumbled on an impromptu sparring session. He didn't know the men in the middle, but they were fairly well-matched, swords flashing in the sun. Damen watched as, slowly, the slightly taller man with copper hair gained the upper-hand on his opponent, a slight but strong man with dark hair.

Damen saw the moment coming right before it did, a quick flick of the copper man's wrist that caught the other man's sword and sent it flying out of his hand. Yielding, the dark-haired man braced his hands on his knees to catch his breath.

The match had Damen itching to pick up a sword. It had been a long time since he had sparred, even longer since he had sparred with someone who could give him a challenge. Sliding through the crowd, Damen stepped to the center of the ring.

"That was excellent swordwork. You should both be proud. Akielos is lucky to have you," Damen said. The copper-headed man nodded in thanks before realizing who was speaking to him. Both men dropped hastily to their knees, bowing. "My apologies, Exalted. I did not immediately recognize you," said the copper-headed man.

Damen gestured for them to rise, vaguely uncomfortable with the formal title. "An easy mistake to make, considering I recently returned from the dead," Damen joked. There was a ripple of laughter through the men around him, easing the atmosphere a bit. "What are your names?"

He learned that the dark-haired man's name was Kael, and the copper-headed man was Aleksander. They both fought under Makedon, Nikandros' most powerful general. They were both proud, Kael said, to serve the true King of Akielos, Damianos, not the false king-killer on the throne. Damen's heart twisted painfully. Pushing that away, he turned to address the men around him.

"I would be honored if there was a man here who would spar with me. It has been a long time since I have tested myself against an Akielon fighter," Damen said to the crowd at large. He waited, but there were no volunteers. He couldn't tell if it was because his swordsmanship was well known as the best in Akielos or because no one wanted to fight their king. Either way, Damen thought with disappointment, he would not get his match today.

"I will fight you." The clear, familiar voice cut through the air, and Damen had to control his heart as it tried to beat its way out of his chest. "Though I'm not Akielon. I hope you won't be too disappointed."

Damen's eyes scanned the crowd, and finally found the golden-haired figure that was cutting a path through the men. The blue eyes were focused on him, and Damen searched them for any sign of their disastrous conversation in the tent. He was unsurprised to find no hint of emotion on Laurent's face.

As Laurent approached him, Damen felt the atmosphere of the circle change. The Prince of Vere, here to spar with the prince-killer King who had cut down his brother. There was a charged air of excitement hanging over the gathering.

Damen felt as though electricity was coursing over his skin. In as casual voice as he could manage, he said, "It would be my pleasure." He let a pause accentuate his next words. "If you think you can keep up."

The glitter in Laurent's eyes was both playful and deadly. Damen wondered if he was stepping into the biggest mistake of his life, giving Laurent a sharp weapon so soon after Damen had pushed him to the edge of his control. If Damen hadn't seen Laurent fight before, he would have scoffed at the challenge. As it was, he made a note to keep his attention on Laurent's mind as well as his sword. He would have his hands full.

He could see that the men watching them had sized up Laurent and found him wanting. He couldn't stop himself from grinning. He remembered his own shock when he had seen Laurent's proficiency. They wouldn't be looking at him like that for long.

Laurent was handed a sword from Kael, and he found its balance, shifting it in his grip. He looked back at Damen, one fair eyebrow arched. Speaking low enough that only Damen could hear, he said, "I never thought you'd be smiling when I finally faced you with a blade, Damianos."

"I'm imagining the look on these men's faces when they watch you match me, step for step. They're all thinking I'm going to destroy you," Damen said in an equally private voice. The smile was still there.

Damen thought he saw the corner of Laurent's mouth twitch, but he must have imagined it, for it was gone a moment later. Damen accepted his own sword from Aleksander, his eyes never leaving Laurent's.

"Do you think I'm going to destroy you?" Laurent asked Damen.

The smile faded. "I think you want to," he said. He wanted to bite back the words he could feel coming, but he was already in too deep. "I think maybe you already have."

Laurent's lips parted in slight surprise at the words. Damen found himself distracted by the tiny bit of space between them, his imagination taking over, so that he didn't immediately notice that Laurent had raised his sword and was swinging it towards Damen with full force. If Damen hadn't been training since he was a small child, the blow would have been lethal. But Damen wielded a sword like an extension of himself, and so his own blade came up to meet Laurent's.

The clash of metal was the first note in the soundtrack of their elaborate dance, Prince and King facing each other as equals for the first time.

The surroundings faded from Damen's awareness, his world narrowing to blue eyes and silver steel. Had anything else ever mattered?

As expected, the danger of facing Laurent came from how cunning he was, how complex his maneuvers and plans were. Damen had never faced an opponent like this, even when he had fought Auguste. They were similar in the way that the midday sun and the full moon were similar; Auguste had been nothing but fire, and Laurent was all bright edges and cold, blazing light. Both were lethal and beautiful.

In a distant, removed way, Damen could hear the sounds of awe and enjoyment from the crowd watching them, as he had expected. He wished he could see Laurent as they did; a blur of gold and blue, elegant and graceful, taking an act of brute force and turning it into moving art.

Though, Damen admitted to himself with a small smile, there is something to be said about witnessing it from such an intimate distance.

In his moment of distraction, Laurent executed a complicated twist of his body, spinning in the opposite direction that Damen had expected. With a flick of his wrist, Laurent sent just the tip of his sword razing down Damen's bare arm, drawing first blood. The scratch wasn't deep, but it would probably scar. Another mark Laurent had claimed on his body. Another reminder of all that lay between them.

"Come on, Damen. Fight me," Laurent said, his eyes gleaming. "I know this isn't the way you fought Auguste."

"I'm not trying to hurt you, Laurent," Damen said, holding Laurent's sword still for just a moment with his own. Laurent made a frustrated sound low in his throat and slid his sword down and away, disengaging them with the sweet singing of steel on steel. The swords were only apart for a moment, and then Laurent was stepping back in.

Laurent's attacks increased in speed and complexity as time passed. Damen recognized that this meant more to Laurent, that he needed it. He needed Damen to give him everything. Clenching his jaw, Damen obliged. If this was what he could give Laurent, if this was what would rebuild their shattered world....he owed Laurent this.

By the time they paused for the second time, both of them were panting. It was rare to go so long in a simple spar, but this was so much more than that, and they were surprisingly even-matched. Even so, it was becoming apparent that, despite Laurent's devious mind and quick footwork, Damen had the advantage, in both strength and skill. The outcome of this was inevitable.

The effort required for Laurent to block the blunt force of Damen's attacks meant that he had less will to focus on keeping his emotions off his face. Damen watched, through the flash of blades, as Laurent let everything bleed out of him. Anger and pain mixed with other emotions that were harder to identify. Damen felt a pressure in his chest that had nothing to do with his physical strain.

Laurent was tired. Damen could see it, could see Laurent beginning to make small mistakes. If this had been war, if Damen had met him as he would have in another life as an enemy, those mistakes would have cost Laurent his life. Damen let them pass, ignoring the opportunities as he slowly pushed Laurent back.

Finally, after what could have been minutes or hours or lifetimes, Laurent committed the most fatal error a smaller opponent could make; he allowed Damen to capture Laurent's blade with his own and, sliding down, Damen locked their hilts together. Laurent shook under the stress of meeting Damen's greater strength and height full on. It was only a matter of time before he gave way.

They were incredibly close, staring at each other over the cross of bright steel between them. Laurent's jaw was set in a hard line, his eyes blazing, his golden hair sweat-darkened and tangled at his neck. Damen could hear the labor of his lungs, could feel the strain of his lithe muscles.

"Finish it, Damen," Laurent hissed, forcing the words past his heaving breath. "You've beaten me, so end it."

Suddenly, Damen was overcome with exertion and emotion. He stood, close as a lover, and met Laurent's gaze and held it. With purpose and meaning, he said one word.

"No."

Then he released his muscles, pulling back out of the tangle of swords. He relished the sound his sword made against Laurent's as they disengaged. Deliberately, his eyes never leaving Laurent, he threw his sword to the side, then fell to his knees in front of Laurent. Part of him recognized that his men were watching their king kneel to a foreign prince, an enemy prince, and that it would be seen as weakness, as surrender. He would deal with that later. Right now, only one person mattered.

Laurent's eyes were wide and dark, his chest heaving beneath his tight laces. His sword hung to his side, the point pointed towards the ground, shock rendering him immobile. Whatever he had expected, it hadn't been this.

Low enough that only Laurent would hear him, Damen spoke. "I took your brother from you. I will live with that for the rest of my days. If you want it, my life is yours. I give it to you freely. Take it. Kill me now, if that is what you desire. I will not stop you."

His heart was beating against his ribs, a bird thrashing inside its cage. He bared his neck, recognizing that he risked not just his life but his entire kingdom on this wager, on the thought, the hope, that he knew Laurent. It was entirely possible he was wrong and that everything was lost.

Laurent stood, still as stone, after Damen's pronouncement. Then he took two measured steps closer to Damen, staring down at him. Damen didn't lower his gaze. Slowly, tenderly, Laurent raised his sword towards Damen's throat. Damen swallowed hard as the very tip of the sword came to rest on the gold of Damen's collar. Dragging the point across the soft metal, Laurent carefully drew a shallow scratch into the collar, before lowering his sword and tossing it to the side. Damen closed his eyes briefly, then looked back up at Laurent.

Laurent's expression was unreadable, some deep and unfathomable emotion drawing his face into angles Damen had never seen on him. He crouched down and traced the scratch he had just created with his fingertips, then let his hand graze Damen's jaw, light as the wings of a moth. Damen shivered at the sensation, somehow feeling like it was more intimate than any touch he had ever received.

Then, Laurent smiled at him, a complicated and beautiful thing, and he stood, holding out his hand to Damen. "As much as I like seeing you on your knees, the rumors in this camp are going to be inescapable tomorrow, and I don't particularly feel like hearing their unimaginative gossip any more than I need to. Get up."

Damen grasped his forearm, letting Laurent haul him to his feet. They stood like that for a moment, and then Damen asked, "Why?"

Laurent considered him for a moment before his gaze dropped to the slave collar around Damen's neck. "My collar wouldn't look nearly as good on you if you no longer had an intact throat for it to encircle. Plus, it would have been a lot of work to slice through the gold. I was tired." The corner of his mouth turned up just a little, and then he was releasing Damen's arm and slipping off through the crowd. Damen was left in a daze, watching him disappear.

Looking around him, Damen's gaze caught on Nikandros, standing at the edge of the now-dispersing circle. Nikandros stared back at him, his face hard and his jaw set, before he turned his back on his king and strode away, leaving Damen standing alone in the sun.

 

Chapter Text

Damen had returned to his tent with the intent of reconciling troops and supplies. He needed to figure out how he was going to get three thousand men who had been declared enemies three days ago to work together without killing each other. He also grudgingly admitted to himself that he was going to have to deal with the consequences of kneeling to Laurent earlier; it was not the ideal image to present to an army that had only recently learned that their King wasn't dead.

And right now, Damen wasn't thinking about any of that.

He was lying on his back on his pallet, one arm thrown lazily above his head. He was watching the afternoon light that played off the ceiling of his tent, but his mind was on replay, returning over and over again to the brush of Laurent's fingers over his jaw, to the rightness of holding Laurent close and not letting go. It had been the longest Laurent had allowed Damen to touch him without retribution.

Damen closed his eyes, feeling the full weight of the collar at his neck. It no longer felt like a burden. It felt, suddenly, like an embrace.

"It would seem, from that idiotic grin on your face, that you are either incredibly oblivious to the damage you did this morning, or you just don't care. I can't decide which is worse."

Damen sighed, opening his eyes to see Nikandros standing over him, arms crossed and eyes flat with annoyance. He hadn't even heard the rustle of the tent flap from Nikandros' entrance. Raising himself onto his elbows, he grumbled, "What exactly is the point of having guards if they don't keep people out?"

"I am not people, Damianos," Nikandros hissed. "If you would take that empty head of yours out of the clouds for a moment, you would realize just how foolish that ridiculous display was. Why, in the name of all that is good in this world, would you kneel to him? In public?"

Damen, after closing his eyes briefly once more, gathered himself and rolled to his feet to face Nikandros. "It had to be done, Nikandros. I'm not sorry. It was the only way."

Nikandros pressed the fingertips of one hand to his temple, as if attempting to rub away a headache. "Are you really going to stand there and tell me that finding your way into his bed is worth throwing away everything you've worked for? Everything your father worked for?"

"Don't," Damen said "Don't use my father against me, Nikandros. You know I would do anything for Akielos."

Nikandros looked at him long and hard. "Anything?" Damen nodded sharply. Nikandros continued in a softer, pointed voice. "Would you walk away from him, Damen? If it was a choice between Akielos and him, would you be able to turn away from him and never look back?"

Damen swallowed around the sharp shard of pain that had lodged itself in his throat. He was silent for just a moment too long.

"That's what I thought," Nikandros said, the lines hard around his eyes.

"That's not a choice I have to make," Damen said forcefully, finding his voice. "Laurent will not stand in the way of my throne. In the way of Akielos."

Nikandros shook his head, suddenly looking tired. "Will you never learn, Damen? I warned you once before that your trust would lead to disaster. Will you not listen to me now?"

"Laurent is not Jokaste, Nikandros."

"A tiger is not a shark, and yet they will bite you much the same," Nikandros replied. He sighed. "I don't want to see you hurt again, Damianos. I want to see you ascend the throne that is your birthright. Why are you making it so difficult?"

"It does not have to be difficult, Nik," Damen said, clasping Nikandros' shoulder. "Please, just help me gain the trust of the army and the generals, and I'll take care of the rest. Trust me."

Nikandros raised his eyebrow. "Fine. Fine," he said, his arms lifting in surrender. "But you don't get to complain about my methods. I can't stop you from chasing him, I can't stop you from fucking him, but you will do what I tell you when it comes to how to win over the army. Both of you."

Damen couldn't help the small smile that spread across his lips. "If you think you can tell Laurent what to do, you haven't spent enough time with him. He'll be four steps ahead of you as you try to figure out how he managed it."

Nikandros glowered. "We'll see."

Nikandros turned to leave, walking to the exit of the tent. Lifting the flap, he hesitated, then turned back to Damen, his face serious again.

"It's your head or your heart, Damen. You only have the luxury of keeping one of them intact. Be sure you know what you're doing when the time comes to make your choice."

*****

Nikandros had informed him, still clearly annoyed, that he would be entertaining that evening. When Damen had asked if Nikandros had convinced Laurent to attend, Nikandros had clenched his jaw and said shortly, "He'll be there." Damen wished he could have born witness to that conversation.

Damen had to control the little flip of excitement that he felt when he thought of seeing Laurent again. He didn't know how Laurent would act toward him now, but it seemed like they had crossed into something new after their sword fight. He wasn't so stupid to think that Laurent had forgiven him, but Damen couldn't help himself from thinking of a night filled with warm, golden light and blue eyes, the man beside him knowing exactly who he was.

This time there wouldn't be swords involved. Hopefully.

When Damen stepped into the command tent, he saw that the sides had been raised, creating a pavilion open to the rest of camp, allowing the dais to be clearly seen from all around. However, instead of the single throne he had seen that morning, there were now two thrones, side by side. The message was clear.

Damen took his place on the throne on the right, settling himself in as the men of the camp began to gather. Damen saw the face of Makedon in the crowd, watching him carefully. He would have to be careful from here on out--another demonstration of weakness like this morning would be enough to lose the loyalty of men like Makedon.

A bright figure caught Damen's eye. It struck him how much he was drawn to notice Laurent in a crowd. And yet he couldn't tear his eyes away as Laurent approached the dais, dressed impeccably in tight-laced blue garments, a simple gold circlet woven around his head. Damen, in his customary chiton and red cloak fastened at his shoulder, suddenly felt like the barbarian Laurent had always considered him to be in comparison.

Damen's eyes were not the only ones fastened on the striking figure that Laurent presented, but he was the only one whose gaze was returned. Laurent walked gracefully to the dais, his eyes never leaving Damen's face, and then sat on the throne to Damen's left, throwing one leg out straight and dangling his right wrist over the arm. Damen noticed, absurdly, that their fingers were only a few inches apart, before tearing his thoughts away to look back out at the crowd.

He noticed with pleasure that Laurent's company of men had joined the crowd. He recognized Jord's face in the crowd, along with the rest of the men he had spent many days with. He nodded to them, noting the distrustful looks on many of the faces. He realized that this was their first look at the man who had gone from slave to enemy king in the span of one night. Only Jord returned his nod, his expression torn and hesitant.

He glanced back at Laurent, who was watching him. "Did you expect them to accept this in a day?" Laurent murmured, so that only Damen would hear him. "Not only was their Prince's bed slave an Akielon, he was the Akielon King. I imagine they don't like to think of me submitting to you. It must kill them to imagine me letting you fuck me into the mattress."

Damen flushed, his mind straying uncontrollably to the image. Laurent's eyes glittered with mirth.

Damen forced himself to breathe normally, then replied in the same low voice Laurent had used. "I can't imagine that you would ever submit to anyone, much less me," he said. "Even if I were the one to...I am under no illusion that you wouldn't be the one in control the entire time."

The look in Laurent's eyes had changed, though Damen couldn't discern what it was. Their gazes held for a moment, then Laurent broke away to look out over the crowd. "I brought a gift, at Nikandros' request," Laurent said, raising his hand to beckon to someone in the crowd. "I was surprised he was able to talk to me at all without strangling me. It was clear he wanted to."

"He'll come around....eventually," Damen said, watching a man approach the dais. "What's this?"

Laurent didn't respond, instead raising his voice to be heard by the crowd. "In honor of the alliance that has brought our two countries together against the men who would steal our thrones, I would like to make an offering of equality to King Damianos. While he wears my gold, the implication does not allow us to stand on equal footing. Tonight, witnessed by honorable men of both Akielos and Vere, the collar and cuffs will be removed."

Damen looked at Laurent, his surprise echoing in the murmur that had spread through the crowd. The man who had come up to the dais was a blacksmith, tools at the ready to remove the gold.

In a voice just for Damen, Laurent said, "You came to my palace in chains, but you were never made for them. From the very beginning, your eyes told me that you would find your way back. A slave by name, but a king by right. You were always born to rule. You are no longer a slave, Damianos, whether you keep my gold or not. I know my word doesn't mean anything to these people. I know you are already free. But I willingly give you your freedom. That, at least, means something to me."

Damen sat, frozen, his heart pounding in his chest. It was true, it wouldn't have mattered at all if Laurent had freed him or not. The moment he had walked into the Akielon camp, his bonds had been broken and he had taken up his mantle as King. Laurent no longer had ownership over Damen.

And yet, sitting there in front of his army and his most trusted commanders, Damen thought that maybe there was more than one kind of ownership.

Laurent waved at him, indicating that he should stand. Damen did, not looking away from Laurent. He again had the surreal experience of feeling like he was merely a spectator in his own body, a foreigner trespassing in a dream. 

Numbly, Damen stood still, his head tilted to allow the blacksmith to access the collar. Laurent watched with cool indifference as the collar was removed. Damen felt a weight lift from his shoulders when it was gone, the cool night air caressing skin that had not been uncovered since before he was captured. He wasn't sure why he had to swallow around a lump in his throat.

The blacksmith turned to his right wrist next, carefully removing the cuff. Damen glanced at the band of lighter skin that laid underneath it. He flexed his wrist, feeling as if it belonged to someone else. The blacksmith moved to his left wrist.

"Wait."

The word was out before he was even conscious that he had been the one to speak it. He returned his eyes to Laurent.

"My body has known the weight of gold. If we are to truly be equals, it seems only fitting that yours does too." Laurent stared at him, his body carefully still. Damen turned to the blacksmith. "Leave the left cuff. The right will go to him."

"You want me to wear the cuff of a man I enslaved?" Laurent said, quietly, controlled.

"I want you to wear the cuff of a man you freed," Damen said, equally quiet. The blacksmith looked down, the only witness to this exchange.

Laurent was still for a long moment. Only the months of constant company gave away his tension to Damen. Then he stood, loosening the laces at his right wrist before coming to a stop facing Damen, locking his gaze onto him. His eyes never lowering, he held his wrist out to the blacksmith, who, after a moment of hesitation, attached the cuff to Laurent's smaller wrist, adjusting it to fit. Damen watched Laurent's jaw work slightly before Laurent turned to face the crowd.

"Your King and I wear the same gold, now. Akielos and Vere will celebrate tonight as equals, and tomorrow we begin our campaign of justice against those who would see us overthrown."

A cheer rose up from the crowd, and Damen could see that his actions this morning were forgotten, the image of him kneeling to the Veretian Prince replaced with the sight of seeing the same Prince cuffed in gold. It wasn't acceptance, not yet, but Laurent had ensured that they were well on their way.

Damen and Laurent sat back on their twin thrones, their cuffed wrists glinting inches away from each other. For a long moment, they were silent. Then:

"I still think you looked better with the collar. Unfortunately, Nikandros made it quite clear what he would do to me if I made you keep it. I suppose it'll just have to be a fond memory."

Damen couldn't help the smile that tilted the corner of his mouth. It was going to be an interesting evening.

 

Chapter Text

A long, low table was brought to the dais, along with plates and platters of food and goblets of wine. Below them, the men settled in to a night of feasting and drinking. The tension that had been present since the two camps had merged was still tangible, but like a sword whose blade has been dragged through the sand, the sharpness was gone. The light in the pavilion was warm and golden, casting everything into hazy comfort. Even Laurent's fine edges were softened by the glow.

Damen watched the crowd, finding faces that he recognized here and there. His eyes caught on the familiar figure of Nikandros, and, with a slight jolt, Damen recognized the man he was talking to as Jord. Nikandros' head was tilted slightly, something he had done since boyhood, a tell that he was genuinely interested in the conversation. There was a tiny furrow of concentration between Jord's eyebrows. Both men were smiling.

Damen experienced the rather disconcerting feeling of having lived two lives which were now colliding, becoming inextricably linked, whether he liked it or not.

"I should warn Jord that Nikandros comes with a bite," Laurent commented idly, and Damen looked over to find that Laurent had followed his gaze to the pair and was watching them with vague interest. "It would be a shame for a man as trusting as him to walk into that blindly. He might not walk away with all of his limbs."

Damen couldn't hold back a low bark of a laugh. "I wonder what that would be like," he said pointedly. "I certainly would have appreciated a warning to keep my hands to myself before you tricked me into the baths."

Laurent was still watching Jord and Nikandros. "Tricked? You had plenty of warnings. You were just too stubborn to heed them. And I didn't force your hands lower than they should have been." He looked over at Damen. "That, I think, was all you."

Damen felt a rush of heat as he thought back to that particular moment. He didn't deny Laurent's statement.

Leaning forward, Damen poured a goblet of water for Laurent, handing it over, before pouring wine for himself. Laurent looked at the water for a moment, before looking over at Damen and asking, "No wine?"

Damen raised his eyebrows. "You don't drink." Amending himself, he said, "Besides that first night. Since then, I've never seen you touch alcohol."

Laurent looked at him for a long time before saying, "I...Most people don't notice that." His expression was unreadable.

"I would say that I've spent rather more time with you than most people," Damen said wryly. "Would you like some wine?"

"No, I....no, thank you. Water will do."

Curiosity pricked at Damen, but he held himself back. Tonight felt like it held the possibility of openness, and he didn't want to waste it. He had other questions that he wanted answered. Damen gathered a handful of grapes, carefully picking off the stems before popping them in his mouth, letting the sounds of the crowd drift between them as he gathered his thoughts. Though Damen was looking out over the crowd, he was constantly aware of Laurent's presence next to him.

After a few moments of silence, Damen turned his attention back to Laurent. "Can I ask you something?"

"I can't imagine you would be able to restrain yourself even if I said no," Laurent said, tearing a small corner off a piece of bread and raising it delicately to his lips. Damen found himself following the movement.

Laurent looked at him expectantly. "Anytime, Damen. Surely you didn't forget how to speak in the last thirty seconds."

Damen mentally shook himself, glaring briefly at Laurent before steeling himself. There had been many conversations where Damen had tried to discover more about who Laurent was, but it felt so much different now that he was doing it as himself. It felt more dangerous. It felt more exhilarating.

"Was the story you told me true? The one about the stars? About you and..." Damen hesitated. He didn't want Laurent to lock himself back up and retreat. They stood on fragile ground.

Laurent's jaw twitched. Damen prepared himself for the verbal assault that was sure to follow. But instead, when Laurent opened his mouth to speak, his voice was quiet and tentative. "Auguste. You...you can say his name."

Damen's pulse beat furiously at his throat. He had a tight feeling in his chest, a dull throb of pain mixed with a sharp stab of joy, because this small allowance felt like a gift. No, more than that—from Laurent, it felt like the beginning of forgiveness.

He forced the emotion from his throat as much as he could, but there was still a slight tremor in his voice when he said, "The story of you and Auguste. Was it real?"

Laurent was watching him, his eyebrows drawn just slightly together. Damen resisted the urge to reach out and smooth the tiny furrow between them with his thumb.

"Yes. It was real." He swallowed, a small gesture, but on Laurent it said everything. "He was...I don't know that I ever would have gotten any sleep without that. I used to be terrified to go back to bed, knowing that the nightmares would take me again. But Auguste...he made those nights bearable. I would close my eyes and I would repeat the names of the constellations he had shown me that night, committing them to memory. It still took me hours, but eventually, the repetition would lull me into sleep."

Laurent took a slow drink from his goblet, gazing unseeingly out over the crowd.

“After he...when he was gone, it never quite seemed as effective. Now, I look back on those nightmares and they seem...not insignificant, but simpler. Demons and monsters—they're more terrifying when they become real. When my nightmares come now, true nightmares that I could never have imagined as a child...it's easier to just stay awake.”

Damen remembered the long nights spent poring over maps, the times Laurent never returned to the tent. Ruefully, he realized that he had unconsciously assumed that Laurent didn't need sleep, that he was above it. How foolish of him. Hadn't he learned, better than anyone, that Laurent was just as human as the rest of them? Perhaps he was more ruthless, perhaps he had secrets—but the same blood flowed through his veins. The ice the men talked about was nothing but a shell.

He wanted so badly to ask what form Laurent's nightmares took, what brought him such terror that he would rather spend his days exhausted, but Damen knew he had to go slow. He sensed that even this tiny piece of truth had cost Laurent to tell him, that it was more than he had told anyone else. There was more that he wasn't saying, but now wasn't the time to push too deep.This Laurent was as lovely and skittish as a stag in the woods, and if Damen wasn't careful not to startle him, he would flee.

Laurent continued, not looking at Damen. "It's not the same as it was those nights with him, but when I need a distraction, when I can't think, I go look at the stars. They don't change. They're the same ones he showed me. They're absolute. If I don't look anywhere but the sky, I could be eleven again. He could be standing next to me." Laurent was silent a moment, then he turned back to Damen, a small, self-deprecating smile on his face. "Childish, I know. So, yes. The story was true."

Childish—Damen thought it was anything but. To hold on to something innocent and good, to not let the hardness of the world destroy it, that was an act of defiance, a choice that not everyone was strong enough to make. Piece by piece he was understanding what had made Laurent, and each new revelation felt precious to him. What Damen really wanted to do was reach out and run his fingers over Laurent's skin, to hold him, to kiss him. He had no defense against this newfound candor. Instead, he looked out over the crowd.

"In Ios, from the cliffs, the view is uninterrupted. You can stand there and listen to the sea beat on the rocks, and the sky almost shimmers with stars. They are so bright, so numerous, you feel like you could reach out and rake your hand through them like sand. It's like nothing else I've seen elsewhere, to stand there and glimpse such vast endlessness in two different forms, meeting before your eyes." He glanced over to Laurent. "You would like it there, I think."

Laurent was silent for a time. "Then maybe one day I will see it," he said finally. "It sounds...beautiful."

When he said it, he was looking at Damen, and Damen was looking back, unable to separate the blue of Laurent's eyes from the sound of the word "beautiful."

Chapter Text

The revelry went on late into the night, the men becoming boisterous and spirited. A few men were brave enough to approach the two of them, who were very clearly only interested in each other, with varying degrees of acceptance on their faces. Some Akielons came to welcome back their true king, looking mistrustfully at Laurent, while some of the men from Laurent's troop came to express their shock at having had a king hidden in their presence the entire time.

Jord was the last to approach. He was wary, bowing first to Laurent and then, with visible hesitation, to Damen as well. His eyes lingered on the two golden cuffs that they both now wore. He opened his mouth, closed it again.

Damen took pity on him, and spoke before Jord had to. “A mere two days ago, you and I sat together as friends around a fire. At least, I hope you consider us friends. When I was a slave, you were kind to me, when kindness was both nonexistent for me and a risk for you. I hope that our friendship can continue. I am sorry for lying about who I was. You can see why it was a necessity.”

Damen watched a battle wage itself inside Jord, as his previous judgement of Damen's character warred with the hatred his entire country had felt since Damen had walked away from Marlas and Auguste had not. A tense few minutes passed in silence.

Finally, a small smile curled at the side of Jord's mouth. “None of us would have believed you anyways, if you had told us. Damianos, Prince-Killer, in our midst as a pleasure slave? Even Lazar would not come up with such a ludicrous tale.”

Damen felt Laurent tense next to him at the nickname. “I would rather be known simply as Damen here. I do not wish to be named for my worst act.”

Damen could feel Laurent's gaze burning into him, but he didn't want to turn and see what emotion lay beneath it. He could not bear to see pain or anger on Laurent's lovely face at the name Damen had earned from cutting down Auguste.

Jord lowered his eyes. “My apologies....Damen. It was a cruel trick, gifting you to the country—and the man—who despised you the most. Kastor must truly be a monster. I never imagined I would say these words, but... I would be honored to call you my friend.” He looked up and smiled, which Damen returned. Jord paused, and then, after a glance at Laurent, continued. “And as your friend, I would remind you of the advice I gave you back by the fire. It is doubly true now that I know your true identity.”

With that, Jord nodded at them both, then slipped back into the crowd.

Lauren slid his eyes to Damen. “Would you care to share what advice my dear captain imparted upon you?”

Damen cleared his throat. “I—“

A crash from the edge of the pavilion broke their conversation, drawing their attention to the crowd. Damen searched for the cause, fearing a fight had broken out between the two factions. Finally, he found the source of the commotion. Two men were standing on one of the wooden tables, knocking back cupfuls of what looked like griva. The men around the table, Veretian and Akielon alike, were cheering them on. Damen grinned, not envying the men their headaches when they woke in the morning.

"What are they drinking?" Laurent asked curiously.

"Griva," Damen responded, still smiling. He remembered his own experience with the fiery liquor. Or rather, he didn't remember. "Makedon's uncle makes it. It's been known to reduce grown men to incoherent puddles on the floor."

Laurent raised his eyebrows. "I have a general policy of retiring when men are reduced to puddles. It's not a flattering look. Although it would appear our men are getting along as well as could be hoped for." He rose, and Damen rose with him. The rest of the men were entirely too entertained to notice them leaving.

Now that he was standing, Damen realized just how tired he was. He followed behind Laurent, rubbing absently at an aching shoulder. His body moved without conversing with his mind, and, before he noticed what he was doing, he found himself entering, not his own tent, but Laurent's. Cursing himself, he turned back to where Laurent had paused at the entrance to the tent, watching him with a wicked glint in his eyes.

"Presumptuous, aren't you? Despite the fact that I'm wearing this" Laurent said, lifting his newly-gilded wrist, “I am not accepting any of the usual obligations that come with it.” He let the flap fall and walked to the center of the room, where a table and three chairs sat.

"I'm sorry, it was habit," Damen said. "I'm so used to..."

Damen trailed off as he saw the light reflect off a shining circle of metal on the table that Laurent was standing near. He walked over, staring at it. Laurent followed his gaze to the object, pushing out a small breath of quiet amusement when he saw what it was.

“I asked the blacksmith to return it here after our little...ceremony.”

Damen held up his slave collar, carefully examining the simple, elegant band that had weighed so much on his shoulders and his pride. Turning it, he looked at the hinge that the blacksmith had opened to remove it. He slowly spun it in his hands, moving to the front to look at the long, thin scratch that Laurent had marked on it that morning. Damen ran a finger gently along it, his mind reeling with how much had changed in so little time.

He looked up to see Laurent watching him, mere feet away. He did not look ashamed or embarrassed. Of course he didn't. He met Damen's gaze with a steady one of his own.

Trying—and failing—to contain the feeling bubbling up through his chest, Damen said, "Sentiment?"

One side of Laurent's mouth tilted up in a dry smile. "Something like that."

Reaching over, Laurent took the collar from Damen, turning it as Damen had, before placing it back on the table. He kept looking at it, as Damen kept looking at him. Then Laurent took a deep breath.

"I want you to know...I was going to free you. Before you left. I had made the choice weeks ago. It..." Laurent looked back at him, and Damen saw that his face was open and honest. Damen found himself thinking, absurdly, that he couldn't feel his fingertips. "It wasn't all a lie. Something changed, somewhere between here and Arles. I found myself...trusting you. Impossibly. I was angry about it. I despised myself for it. I thought it weakness, a particularly foolish brand of stupid, to trust the man who I had hated for so long."

Damen was having a hard time breathing; he had to command his lungs to push air in and out. It felt more restrictive than the collar ever had. Laurent ran a finger gently over the gold circle once more, then continued.

"So I told myself to let you go. I was going to take off your cuffs the night before I was to meet up with Nikandros, so that you could return to your army, once I was sure I would have allies near to protect me from my uncle. I didn't... you decided that I should know who you are. It hadn't occurred to me that you would reveal yourself. That you would relinquish what you thought was the only protection keeping you alive. I couldn't think. I couldn't hear you say the words. So I said them instead."

Damen could hear his heart pounding in his ears. He was sure Laurent could too.

"I... I wanted you to know that I was going to let you go. You were the enemy, and somehow, you were also the only person who I was sure wasn't trying to kill me. I knew who you were, Damianos, and I trusted you. I trust you. If that means I am weak..." his voice trailed off.

Damen had spent more time that he was willing to admit imagining how his name, his true name, would sound coming from Laurent's soft lips—without scorn, without malice. Hearing it now, outside the confines of his mind, was nothing like what he imagined.

Here, now, it devastated him.

Damen swallowed, trying to regain control over himself. He took a step closer, bringing him within a single pace of Laurent. Laurent was barely breathing, tense and still. "I have thought you cruel. I have thought you cold. I have thought you intelligent and fair and gentle. But I have never—not once—thought you weak," Damen said, his voice low and raw.

Laurent's eyes were wide, but he did not step away. Damen, his pulse thrumming, reached slowly up, giving Laurent time to pull back, to stop him. The air was charged between them, but Laurent didn't pull away. Damen laid his hand gently across Laurent's cheek. Laurent allowed the touch, as he never had before. Damen could feel Laurent holding himself motionless. Then Laurent's eyes fluttered closed, and he leaned almost imperceptibly into Damen's hand.

Laurent's eyes opened again, and Damen searched them for any hint of warning, of panic. There was energy, and tension, but there was no indication that Laurent wanted him to stop. Damen reached his other hand up, brushing along Laurent's jaw. A tiny shiver ran down Laurent's body, and fire ran through Damen's veins.

Curling his fingers under Laurent's chin, he tilted his face up, still moving slow enough that Laurent could pull away. Instead, Laurent brought his own hand up to cover Damen's.

"Laurent," Damen said, his voice chaotic.

Slowly, with painful intent, Laurent took one tiny step forward, closing the remaining gap between them. Then, leaning up, Laurent pressed his lips to Damen's.

The kiss was a ghost of a kiss, an idea of a kiss, a chaste brush of lips against lips. It could have been mistaken for a breath, for a whisper.

Damen was wrecked by it.

Laurent paused slightly, then kissed Damen again. Damen's hand slid back to thread gently through Laurent's hair, soft against his fingers. Laurent's second kiss was only a little more insistent than the first. His lips parted slightly, and Damen felt like the air had been stolen from his lungs by the warm brush of Laurent's breath against his mouth. Heavy desire flooded his body, and Damen used all of his remaining strength to stop himself from taking over control. He wanted more, he wanted so much more. He ached to steer Laurent over to the silks of his pallet, to press him into them, to hear Laurent say his name, his real name, over and over again. He wanted to tear down every stone in the wall that Laurent had built around himself, to convince him that he didn't need it, not here, not with him.

Laurent wrapped his arm around Damen's neck, pressing them together from hip to shoulder. Damen brought one arm around his waist, keeping the other curled in his hair, pulling him closer, needing him closer. Laurent let his mouth fall slightly open, his breaths quick and shallow, and brushed his tongue along Damen's lower lip.

A low, desperate sound escaped Damen's throat, and he lost all hope of holding back. The kiss deepened, and Laurent's tongue brushed his own. It was going to become quickly apparent just how much Damen wanted him.

Laurent broke away, and Damen feared that he had crossed a line. He gazed into Laurent's eyes, expecting a return of the ice and steel, only to find blue searing into his skin. Before Damen knew what was happening, Laurent had pushed him into one of the chairs and was on top of him, around him, everywhere. Damen had to close his eyes and swallow hard, trying not to think about all the laces between him and Laurent.

Laurent twined both hands through Damen's hair, tilting his head back to look at him. Damen nearly lost it at the feel of Laurent's thighs on either side of him, the feel of Laurent's almost painful grip, the blue eyes that were darkened with desire. He knew Laurent could see everything written plainly on his face.

"Laurent—" Damen began, but Laurent leaned down to capture his mouth in another kiss, pressing down into Damen, and the tattered remains of his thoughts left Damen's head completely. He was lost in a fever of lips and breaths and the promise of something more. Damen wasn't sure how he was going to maneuver Laurent out of his complicated clothes, but he would find a way. He didn't care if the garments were ruined in the process; laces be damned. He had always wanted to rip them apart anyways.

Damen was so consumed that he didn't immediately notice that Laurent had stopped kissing him. He was brought harshly back to reality when he realized Laurent was speaking to someone.

"What?" Laurent said, his tone flat, and Damen was absurdly proud to hear the uneven shake in his voice. Damen looked over to the entrance flap to see an extremely red, extremely nervous man staring at the ground.

Stammering slightly, he managed, "I'm—I'm sorry to interrupt, Your Highness, but there is a messenger here to speak to you."

Damen could feel the annoyance humming through Laurent. "Fantastic. Give him refreshments, give him food, give him whichever tent he wants. I'm sure whatever he has to say can wait until the morning."

The man took a deep breath, steeling himself. "Y—Your Highness, I think that...that you'll want to see him now."

"Really? Do you think he fucks better than the Akielon King? Because otherwise, I. Don't. Care."

Damen closed his eyes, wondering if it was too much to ask to disappear. He would never be used to Veretian crudeness. When he opened them again, he could see that the messenger wanted nothing more than for the earth to swallow him where he stood. Nevertheless, he gathered himself a final time, and, squaring his shoulders, looked Laurent square in the eyes. Damen privately commended him for his courage.

"The message, Your Highness... it's from the Regent."

Chapter Text

Laurent was instantly up and away from Damen, faster that Damen could even follow. He showed almost no signs of their previous activities, besides a faint flush on his fair skin and his slightly disheveled blond hair. Damen remembered tangling his fingers through that hair only a moment before and had to close his eyes and swallow hard, rearranging the fabric of his chiton. Unlike Laurent, Damen's body had betrayed his intentions quite clearly.

Laurent was standing facing the man, who was clearly terrified under the full weight of Laurent's attention. Laurent just stared for a moment, and Damen saw that one of his fists was clenched tight.

"Say that again."

The man flinched at Laurent's tone, a nearly physical thing, laced with barbs and danger.

"The messenger rode in an hour ago. He..." The man glanced at Damen, unwilling to continue.

The next words were venomous. "Tell me," Laurent hissed.

The man braced himself, then said, "He rode into camp under the Regent's red banner, declaring that he had a message for the traitorous so-called prince who sold his country to his enemy for a chance to rut like a whore with their King." The man shot another uncomfortable glance at Damen, clearly ill at ease with the fact that he had, indeed, caught them nearly doing that very thing.

The lovely pink color that had graced Laurent's skin was gone, his face white with rage. Damen couldn't believe they had just been flirting. They had been kissing. Laurent had been open and tender and tangled with Damen, only to be instantly shuttered by this interruption, back to his perfectly polished and distant self. Damen wished he could send the man away, wished they could go back to the moment before he had walked in.

Even from afar, the Regent had aimed with perfect timing, striking with painful precision.

"Bring him to me."

The man all but ran out of the tent, eager to escape Laurent's piercing gaze and the heavy hardness that coated his words.

Laurent did not move from where he stood, still looking straight ahead at the space the man had been standing. The long, straight line of his body practically hummed with tension. Damen stood, walking over to him. Laurent did not acknowledge him. Gently, he placed a hand on Laurent's shoulder.

Laurent flinched violently, tearing himself away from Damen's touch. Damen withdrew his hand as if he had been burned, thrown off by the vast disparity from their earlier touches. Laurent stared at him for a moment, and Damen felt like Laurent was looking straight through him, not seeing him at all.

"Laurent." Damen's voice was clear and solid in the silence. Laurent's eyes seemed to focus, and he blinked at Damen. Damen had to take a step back from the coldness that fell like a gate over Laurent's features.

"Why are you still here? We aren't going to fuck tonight. Surely even you aren't so single-minded."

Damen forced himself not to react to the bitter words. He would not be scared off by Laurent's hard shell, not now that he knew what was just underneath.

"I'm staying," Damen said, meeting Laurent's glare with one of his own. "You need me."

"I don't need anyone, Damianos," Laurent said, the words twisting harshly. "This is between my uncle and me. I will fight my own battles."

Damen shook his head, taking a step closer. "I told you that, if you asked it of me, I would stand with you against your uncle. I meant it. You don't have to face him alone. That's what he's counting on. Alone is weak."

Laurent pushed out a breath of humorless laughter. "But I thought you had never considered me weak, Damen. Not once. Weren't those the words you used? Or were you just saying that to get me on my back?"

Damen flushed, anger seeping through him. With effort, he suppressed it. "If you think you can use my own words against me, it won't work. I'm not leaving."

Before Laurent could respond, the entrance flap of the tent was pulled back once more, and a herald and two soldiers in crimson livery stepped through. Without looking at him, Laurent said, in a low voice, "Fine. You can stay. Do not speak."

Voice ringing clearly across the small distance, the herald began to speak. "The Regent has a message for Laurent of Vere, pretender prince to the throne."

Holding himself tall and regal, Laurent spoke back in the same clear voice, his tone much colder than that of the herald, dismissive. "If I am not Prince, how can he be Regent? His title is rather dependent on mine, you see."

The herald ignored him. "Laurent of Vere is hereby summoned to Toulour in Chasteigne, three days hence, to answer for his crime of treason against the crown. There he will submit to the Regent's men, who will accompany him back to Arles to face his trial and execution."

"And what kind of treason am I supposed to have committed?" Laurent said flippantly.

"The traitorous Prince has conspired with the enemies of Vere, allying himself with them in order to overthrow his uncle the Regent. He has sullied himself and his royal name by spreading for an Akielon barbarian, his own brother's killer. He would trade his people for his own base desires. No Prince of Vere would commit such atrocious acts. He has therefore surrendered his claim to the throne and all territories governed by its reach. Justice will be served at Toulour."

"And why exactly," Laurent said calmly, carefully, "would my dear Uncle think that I would simply walk in and fall to my knees for the execution blade?"

The herald paused, silence filling the gap between them. "The Regent has a personal message as well."

"Oh, do tell. Did he also send gifts and flowers?" The sarcasm was biting.

"He says that there is a pet in Arles who sends his regards, and personally volunteered to meet you in Toulour. If you do not appear in three days time, he will take your place...and your punishment." Another pause. "He says that he wants his earring back."

Damen, standing so close to Laurent, could feel the force of the shock that hit Laurent's body, and the nearly-immediate counter-reaction of Laurent locking all his muscles against it. The only outward sign of his distress at the mention of Nicaise was a muscle clenching in his jaw.

The herald let the silence stretch to a breaking point, then said, "The Regent would like to point out what a waste it would be for him to wear the earring if his head were no longer attached to his neck. A pity it would be, really, for such a lovely boy to meet such an ugly fate, all for the sake of a coward prince unwilling to answer for the crimes he has committed."

When Laurent spoke, his voice was terrible and cold. "Is that all?" The herald nodded once. "Then you can tell my Uncle I have a personal message as well. He can threaten to kill all the boys he's fucking. It won't bring me crawling to his feet. It'll just force him to raise his age limit. A thought that truly disgusts him, I'm sure... after all, where's the fun fucking a boy who can actually find pleasure in what he's doing to them?"

Damen felt sick from the entire conversation. He couldn't believe that less than half an hour ago, he had been sharing sweet, hot breaths with Laurent, only to find himself here, trapped again in a web of deceit and threats.

"Now get out of my tent, and run back to my uncle. I'm sure he's eagerly anticipating my response. Tell him I regret that I won't be there to see his face when he realizes he has forced himself to use his blade on his own cock-sheathe."

The herald turned and, with the two crimson soldiers, exited the tent without another word. Laurent stayed still for so long that Damen moved in front of him to look at his face. Laurent was standing with his eyes closed, his face drawn in tight lines.

"Laurent." Damen had said his name in so many ways tonight; frustration, concern, tenderness, desire—and now, as a tether to the present, to call him back to himself, to call him back to Damen.

When Laurent opened his eyes, Damen nearly stepped back at the anger and pain in them. All of the emotion that Laurent had suppressed during the meeting bled out of him, overflowing. Laurent turned and threw the chair that Damen had been sitting in, hitting one of the poles that held the tent up, making the canvas shake. He swept a hand across the table, sending a lamp crashing to the floor, oil pooling around it. Damen's slave collar rolled erratically across the ground, coming to rest at Damen's feet.

Damen bent down, picking up the gold and staring down at it. Laurent was braced against the table, his head hanging low, his hair swinging forward to hide his eyes. Quietly, Damen went to pick up the overturned chair, righting it, and then carefully picked up the shards of the lamp, placing them and what remained of the fuel chamber upright on the small table by the bed. Then, slowly, he rounded the center table, coming to stand next to Laurent. He placed the slave collar gently in front of Laurent.

"You can't go to Toulour," Damen said, watching Laurent carefully. Laurent didn't raise his head, but Damen knew he was listening. "He knows you care about Nicaise. He knows you will go. I won't let you walk into a trap."

Laurent was quiet for a long time. He lifted his hand and brought it to the collar in front of him, running his finger around the edges. "You think I don't know that? Of course it's a trap. I told the messenger I wouldn't be there."

"Laurent, look at me."

After a deep breath, Laurent tilted his head back, lifting his chin to meet Damen's eyes. Damen held his gaze, trying to impart just how far he would go to keep Laurent safe from his uncle.

"Send me instead."

Laurent's eyes widened, piercing Damen with a rare look of pure surprise. "You..." He didn't finish the sentence for a long time. "Why would I send you into a trap if I am not willing to go myself?"

Damen felt an absurd wave of fondness wash over him at Laurent's stubbornness. "Do you think I don't know what you're planning? That after all this time, I don't understand you? You would not leave Nicaise to the threat of your uncle. You will tell the messenger you will not go, you will tell me you will not go, and when I have turned my back, you will slink off into the night." Damen paused. "Please, Laurent. Please do not walk willingly into his grasp. I would have to come rescue you. Imagine how displeased Nikandros would be."

Laurent stood up, straightening from the table, still looking at Damen. "You want me to send you to rescue Nicaise."

"Yes."

"And how would you do that? You have never dealt with my uncle directly. He is slippery as a snake, clever as a fox, and twice as dangerous as either. You can't simply use brute force against him."

"He is not expecting me. You said yourself that I was always the thing he didn't calculate for." Damen stepped closer, cautiously bringing his hand up to brush Laurent's hair behind his ear. A muscle twitched in Laurent's jaw, but his face softened just a bit as he barely allowed the touch. "Use me, Laurent."

Laurent raised one elegant, fair eyebrow, a faint smirk pulling on the corner of his mouth. "You really should think before you speak. Those words could be misconstrued."

Damen's eyes dropped to the soft lines of Laurent's mouth. "Could they?" he asked softly, feigning innocence.

Laurent stared up at him, his gaze searing and bright. Damen traced his eyes along the planes of Laurent's face, sharp and angular, framed by his golden hair. He wondered if anyone else had ever seen Laurent like this, though he was sure many had imagined it. Fair and lovely, only Laurent's biting personality kept the rest of the world at arm's length. Damen was beginning to suspect that perhaps that was what Laurent intended, that he used it as a weapon against an unfriendly existence.

Laurent's breath was coming quicker, his tightly held composure slipping. Stubborn and composed as he was, the events of the night, and the emotions they had brought with them, were beginning to have their effect. Damen brought his other hand up, running his fingers over the soft skin of Laurent's cheek, then down to his jaw, tilting Laurent's face up to his so that Laurent could not look away.

“I've told you that you don't have to do this alone. You do not have to keep your barriers up, not here, not with me. I am no longer your slave, but I meant what I said. My life is yours, to do what you will with it.”

With a sharp release of breath, Laurent drew himself up, closing the last remaining distance between them. He paused just before their lips touched, his eyes searching Damen's face. Their breaths mingled in the tiny space between them. It was almost more intimate than kissing, that infinite moment before. To want something for so long and to almost have it—it was an exquisite, unendurable feeling. Laurent dragged the seconds out, until Damen's world became only this, only Laurent's breath and his, for minutes or hours or years. Then Laurent leaned in, finally ending Damen's blissful torment.

Damen kept his eyes open as Laurent kissed him, watching Laurent's eyelashes rest against his cheek, so pale as to be almost invisible. Damen slid his arms around the small of Laurent's back, bringing him closer, and he closed his eyes as Laurent arched himself into the touch. Laurent's lips parted as he came in for a second, more heated kiss, and Damen forgot what they had been talking about. It had been something important.....

Damen pulled away with great effort, forcing space between them, though he didn't let Laurent go. "No. Not until you promise that you won't go running off to your uncle. You think that if you distract me..." Damen's words were lost on his tongue as Laurent leaned in and began trailing his lips along Damen's throat.

"Stop it," Damen growled, though the conviction of his words was somewhat negated as he pulled Laurent against him.

"I don't think you want me to," Laurent murmured against his skin. "I don't think you want me to stop. I've seen the way you look at me. I think you've wanted this for a long time." He punctuated each sentence with a gentle graze of teeth. "I think you want to watch my skin flush from your touch. I think you want to watch me flush everywhere."

Damen had to close his eyes against those images, though his imagination had no problem taking over. Clenching his jaw, with all the willpower he had remaining to him, he reached up to encircle Laurent's wrists and pull them from around his neck, holding them gently between them.

"Yes. I want those things. I want them more than I thought it possible to want something. But more than that I want to know that you are safe. That you aren't going to surrender to your uncle. Promise me that, and then I will ride to Toulour in the morning."

Laurent's gaze was inscrutable, and he pulled his wrists out of Damen's loose grip. He stood for a moment, staring at Damen, reading something there. Then, bracing his palms flat on Damen's chest, Laurent pushed lightly. Damen allowed himself to be guided by Laurent, not looking away, until he found his back pressed against one of the tent posts.

He let out a shallow breath as Laurent leaned in, his eyes never leaving Damen's. "And tonight?"

Damen did not attempt to disguise the desire he was sure was burning in his gaze. "Promise me now that you will not go, and tonight I am yours in whatever way you want me. Tonight I can be your slave again, and you may use me as I was once intended."

Laurent was unbearably close, his fingertips trailing along the edge of Damen's chiton. Damen had to force himself to concentrate. Laurent tilted his head, looking up at Damen through lidded eyes. "And if I did not want you as a slave? If I wanted you as a man?"

Damen's chest was tight as he responded. "Then you would have me as a man, and I would lay you down on the sheets willingly. I would take you apart in every way that I know how, and I would claim your body, as you would claim mine. I would chase all thoughts of deceit and betrayal from your mind, until all that was left was my name.” He watched the long column of Laurent's throat as he swallowed. “All it would take is your word."

Laurent stared up at him, the blue of his eyes consuming Damen. He could practically feel Laurent's mind spinning.

"Then you have it. You have my word that I will not walk unthinkingly into my uncle's trap."

Chapter Text

Relief flooded through Damen, overwhelming in its power. He had no idea how to rescue Nicaise, how to outsmart the Regent, but he would figure it out. What mattered was that Laurent would not be there, alone and in mortal danger.

His attention returned to the man in front of him, the captivating blue eyes, the breathtakingly pale skin. He thought about the slaves he had once enjoyed, their obeisance, and how he had loved their softness, their willingness to bend languidly beneath him. They were docile and pliant, wanting to satisfy Damen's every wish. Laurent was none of those things. He was stubborn, dangerous, with all the flexibility of a sword. He was frustrating and infuriating and impossible. His mind was sharp, his tongue even more so.

It would be so easy to cut himself on Laurent's sharp edges. And Damen found that he didn't particularly care.

With his worry for Laurent fading, his need for him seared again through his veins, immediate and hot. Restraining himself, he searched Laurent's face for any sign of hesitation. Despite Laurent's words, he needed to know that Laurent truly wanted this.

“I would have you, here and now, if that is what you desire,” he said, his voice low.

Laurent's reply was straightforward. “You have offered to take my place in Toulour. This is your reward. Take what pleasure you would from me.”

Damen's brow furrowed. “This is not a trade, Laurent. You are not negotiating with political rivals. You are not a prize, but a person. I would see you take your pleasure as well.” He held Laurent's gaze. “To see you undone, to see you let go, would give me more pleasure than all the slaves in Akielos.”

Laurent was looking at him with a strange expression on his face, as if he had never seen a creature like Damen before. “More pleasure than the women of the Vaskian coupling fire?” He almost succeeded in sounding unconcerned with the answer.

Damen put all the feeling he could into his response.“Infinitely.”

Damen felt the shiver of longing that went through Laurent at that word, then saw as Laurent forced it down.

“Then kiss me.”

Months ago, before he had come here, he would never have accepted an order like that. He would have been offended at the tone, at the firm, arrogant way it was said. He would have thought it an insult to his honor, and his pride would never have born it. Now the command, spoken without a doubt that it would be followed, sent a wave of fire through him. Damen didn't need to be told twice.

He had been containing himself before, afraid to scare Laurent away. Now he held nothing back, pouring everything he had into the embrace. It was every lingering look, every suggestive comment, every reverie that Damen had ever allowed himself, forged into a long, tender kiss that chased every other sensation from his mind. This was the moment that Damen had wanted so badly, that he had never allowed himself to imagine.

Laurent made a sweet, surprised noise against Damen's lips, his body inflexible beneath Damen's touch. Then he felt Laurent unlock, his spine curving in where Damen's hand was spread against it, his fingers curling into the fabric at Damen's chest. Muscle by muscle, Laurent pushed back the rigidity that his body defaulted to.

Damen broke the kiss, trying to tame his errant heartbeat back to a normal pace. Unwilling to give up the proximity, he leaned his forehead against Laurent's, lost in the glacial fire of his eyes. Without breaking skin contact, Damen skimmed his lips gently across Laurent's cheek, laid soft, lazy kisses along the sharp ridge of his jawline. Laurent leaned his head back, allowing Damen access to the long line of his throat. When Damen grazed his teeth lightly across the skin he found there, Laurent made a quiet, needy sound that Damen wanted to hear for the rest of his life.

Damen would have continued, had Laurent's jacket not been laced tight against his neck. He pulled away, his back still pressed against the tent pole, leveling an annoyed glance at the fabric keeping him away from Laurent. Soft laughter made him look back up at Laurent, his eyebrows raised in surprise at the sound of it.

“You look—I was just thinking of that grate that you tore out of the wall with your bare hands. It was the same look you just gave me,” Laurent said, suppressing his laughter but unable to stop the smile curling at the edge of his mouth.

“You told me that this was your favorite jacket,” Damen said, teasing. “I'd hate for you to have to find a new one.”

Laurent's smile was slowly replaced with an indecorous stare. “I have other jackets.”

With that, Laurent hooked his fingers into the front of Damen's chiton and dragged him away from the tent pole, his lips slightly open as he kissed Damen. Damen ran his fingers down Laurent's sides, still infuriatingly contained beneath laces and rich cloth. The kiss deepened, and Damen needed it like air, like water, like the blood that flowed through his veins. It was too much. It wasn't nearly enough.

Laurent drew back, and Damen's lungs heaved, trying to replace the breaths that Laurent had stolen from him. His eyes never leaving Damen's, Laurent reached up and began loosening the first tie at his throat. He drew the lace through slowly, the anticipation unbearable. The fabric came apart, the sight of pale skin at the base of Laurent's throat more seductive than all the writhing pets he had seen at court.

Suddenly Damen couldn't stand it. Laurent was here, in front of him, undressing for him. It seemed impossible that Laurent could know exactly who he was and still want this, and Damen felt a great weight between them, laden with desire and surrender and the ghosts of their pasts. He took one step, then another, closing the gap between them. Laurent looked up at him, and Damen felt the sear of his breath on his cheek.

“You told me once that one day, it would be just you and me. Now here we are. You know who I am,” Damen said, his voice low and private. “Say it.”

Laurent's voice was tight. “I know who you are.”

“Say my name.”

Laurent closed his eyes. “Damianos.”

“Again.”

“Damianos.” Laurent's eyes came open, and Damen was caught in the torrent of emotion that filled them. Damen held his gaze, sharing the burden of everything that had happened between them. They would weather this storm together, or not at all.

When Laurent said his name the third time, it was against Damen's lips, more of a sigh than a spoken word. Damen felt something crumble in him at the sound of it tangled around Laurent's uneven breaths. He had no defense against this. He felt like a man who had willingly laid down his sword in the middle of a battlefield, welcoming the sharp stab of steel to his chest.

His fingers wandered, finding the loose ends of the tie that Laurent had undone. He thought of the closeness that had hung between them whenever he had attended Laurent, danger thickening the air, making each touch illicit. “Turn around,” he said, the words coming out surprisingly clear and firm.

Laurent arched one imperious eyebrow at him, then slowly turned on his heel, facing away from Damen. His shoulders were rising and falling at a slightly quicker pace than normal, the only sign that he was affected at all. Damen took his time admiring the man in front of him, eyes scraping down Laurent's slim form, catching where sharp planes gave way to curves. Even fully clothed in restrictive, ridiculous Veretian clothes, Laurent was a study in beauty.

“Good to know you're just as slow as a King as you were as a slave,” Laurent drawled. “Enjoying the view?”

Damen smiled. “I always have.”

Choosing not to respond to that, Laurent turned his head, looking at Damen from the corner of his eye before turning back to face forward. “Anytime, Damen.”

Despite his earlier thoughts about ripping through the clothing, Damen found that he wanted to draw this out. Stepping forth, Damen leveraged all of his considerable height to make sure Laurent could feel him there, mere inches between their bodies. He brought his hands down to Laurent's hips, resting them there for a moment before beginning a lazy drag of fingertips up Laurent's sides. Laurent gave a tiny, involuntary shiver. Damen had to swallow down the wave of lust that coursed through him at the sight of it.

Achingly slow, Damen brought his hands up to the top of the back laces, brushing aside the locks of yellow hair that partially hid them. He allowed just the faintest of touches to graze against the back of Laurent's neck. He was beginning to understand that the softest sensations caused the most reaction, that Laurent liked it that way.

Leaning in to brush his lips behind Laurent's ear, he murmured, “The first time I did this, I thought you were going to make me fuck you in the baths.”

“Make you?” Laurent said, his voice somewhere between amused and disdained. “I don't think either of us are under the impression you wouldn't have enjoyed it. Not that I would have allowed it. As I remember, your hands strayed far enough as it was.”

Damen made a noncommittal noise in his throat as a response. He tangled his fingers in the first tie, dragging it out of its eyelets. “The second time I did this,” he said in the same low purr, “I knew that you had claws, and you weren't afraid to use them. I didn't want to breathe near you, let alone touch you.”

Laurent remained silent at that.

Moving down the laces, Damen parted the stiff fabric of Laurent's collar, revealing more and more pale skin.

“The fifth time I did this, I told myself I hated it. That I hated being your slave, hated the subjugation, hated...you.” The muscles of Laurent's shoulders were taut. “But all I could think about was doing this.” Leaning down, Damen touched his lips against the base of Laurent's neck, where there was no longer fabric hiding Laurent from him. He felt Laurent jerk in surprise, not expecting the contact. Gratified, he slid more of the ties open, kissing down Laurent's spine until he was stopped by the fine white fabric of Laurent's undershirt, his practiced fingers never stopping.

Damen was halfway down Laurent's back now, making sure Laurent felt every tug and drag of the laces as he pulled them out. He let his hands trail down as he went, Laurent's flesh covered only by the thin fabric of the shirt.

Laurent pushed a breath out as Damen gave a little more force to the ties. “That feels—” Laurent swallowed hard, letting the sentence drop. “Keep going,” he finished simply. Damen smiled.

As Damen drew the last tie through the bottom of the jacket, he continued. “The last time I did this,” he said, running his hands all the way from the base of Laurent's spine to his shoulders, “the only thing that kept me from touching you as I am now was the fact that I was Damianos.” His hands slipped under the shoulders of the jacket, lingering more than necessary. He slid the jacket over Laurent's arms, discarding it to the side without care.

In the plain white shirt, Laurent felt younger. Less untouchable. Damen moved closer still, wrapping his arms around Laurent. He let one of his hands rest on Laurent's stomach, and brought the other around to trace his fingers over Laurent's neck, his chest now pressed to Laurent's back. When he leaned forward, he saw that Laurent's eyes were closed, his eyelashes fluttering slightly. Damen could feel his pulse under his fingertips, flighty as a bird in a gilded cage.

“I am Damianos,” he said, holding Laurent tight to him. “Will you have me as I am?”

The answer was shaky, but immediate. “Yes.”

Damen brought his lips to the underside of Laurent's jaw, just below his ear, his hand still possessively curled around Laurent's neck. He drew his other hand up the flat, muscular plane of Laurent's stomach, and watched over Laurent's shoulder with fascination as the white shirt was pulled up, revealing just a sliver of skin.

Laurent opened his eyes and turned his head to look at Damen. His gaze was heavy-lidded and dark. The golden fringe of his eyelashes was richer than all the wealth in Arles. “I can feel that you are as roused as you were that first time in the baths,” he said, his tone salacious. Indeed, Damen's body was stirring, reacting to the feel of himself against Laurent.

“I know what I like...sweetheart.” The taunt in Damen's voice was gentle.

Laurent's eyes flashed dangerously. “Yes, I remember what you like, too.”

With that, he turned in Damen's arms, pressing himself against Damen and wrapping his arms around his neck. He drew Damen down to him, their bodies aligned from shoulder to hip. This time the kiss was insistent. Laurent took no mercy on him, and Damen's will collapsed at the needy slide of Laurent's tongue against his.

He found himself being pushed back, Laurent's smaller stature steering him inexorably towards the corner that Damen knew held the silk-clad bed. The backs of his calves hit fabric, and then Laurent was crowding him into the sheets, his hands braced on either side of Damen's head.

Above him, Laurent pinned him with a look, his hair tumbling in a golden fall to frame his face. The warm, diffuse glow of the lantern cast rich pools of light across him, shadows highlighting the dips of his collarbones and the hollow of his throat where the loose shirt had fallen open. Damen longed to trace them with his tongue, to taste the skin there, but when he tried to lean up, Laurent pressed him back with the heel of his hand, one eyebrow raised lazily.

Laurent splayed his fingers on Damen's chest, running his hand across to the pin at Damen's shoulder.

“So barbaric, to wear a garment that can be undone with such little effort,” Laurent said.

Damen swallowed, then replied, “We don't like to waste an hour trying to get each other out of our clothes.”

Laurent smiled, slightly predatory. “It didn't take you an hour to get me out of mine. Apparently your motivation was strong.” Damen didn't mention that Laurent was still very much clothed above him, to Damen's extreme displeasure. Laurent continued. “But you're right, let's not waste time unnecessarily.”

Flicking open the close of the pin, Laurent drew it out, tossing it to the side. The chiton came apart easily beneath his hand as he slid his fingers lower, brushing against Damen's nipple, and Damen couldn't stop the hitch in his breath, nor the jolt in his pulse. Laurent's mouth curved into a small, satisfied smile, and he moved on, down to Damen's stomach. His touch was hot, and Damen felt as though he would wake in the morning with scorch marks wherever Laurent's hand had been. It was impossible not to be consumed by the feel of it, by the idle brush of skin on skin. Laurent's eyes never left Damen's.

Then Laurent's hand slid to Damen's hip, and the last piece of fabric fell away. Damen watched as Laurent's gaze raked slowly down his form, taking all of him in, nothing hidden. Laurent looked back up at him, apparently satisfied, before leaning down and capturing Damen's mouth in his for a long, insistent kiss that caused heat to pool deep in Damen's stomach.

Laurent had his hand on the back of Damen's neck, pulling Damen into him, distracting him from all else. So when Laurent reached down to wrap his hand around Damen, the feeling was so unexpected, so good, that his eyes snapped open as he gasped against Laurent's lips. Damen's back arched involuntarily into the touch, and Laurent broke the kiss, staring down at Damen with sharp interest.

Laurent curled his hand up from the base to the tip, his touch possessive and raw. His thumb pressed just below the head, and he drew it slowly up, tracing along the slit. Damen curled his fingers into the bedding, his brain trying to catch up to the fact that Laurent had his hand around Damen's cock.

Laurent was smiling as he said, “See? I do remember what you like. Ancel was very thorough.”

His breaths coming out in pants, Damen said, “Nonsense. It had nothing to do with Ancel. He was merely your tool. It might as well have been you.”

Laurent's gaze burned into Damen, and his hand slid tightly down Damen's length and back up. He twisted slightly over the head before releasing his grip to draw one finger unbearably along the underside of Damen's cock.

Damen jerked underneath him, the light touch electrifying. Damen couldn't look away from Laurent, whose chest was heaving slightly more than normal, but was otherwise cool and unassailable, only the trailing ties of his shirt open. Laurent wrapped his fingers around the base of Damen's cock and began to roll his hand up and down, the pace inflaming Damen's pleasure but the rhythm uneven, unpredictable. Damen's pulse would crest only for Laurent to slow down, so that Damen felt he was constantly on the precipice, being denied the final fall.

Though Damen ached for completion, he didn't want this to be over so soon, for Laurent to draw away behind his walls, his eyes shuttering into indifference. With a considerable amount of willpower and a groan of frustration, Damen took Laurent's hand and pulled it off of him, pushing himself up with his other hand, so that he was sitting with Laurent straddled in his lap. Damen leaned forward and rested his forehead against Laurent's shoulder, taking a few moments to get himself together.

When his breathing was a little more even, he looked back at Laurent, whose expression was slightly confused, as though he had never had this happen before and couldn't contemplate why Damen would stop him.

“Was my hand not adequate enough? I won't use my mouth,” Laurent said, matter-of-factly. “If that's what you're hoping for...”

Damen interrupted this with a deep kiss, taking advantage of Laurent's open mouth before pulling back. “It was...more than adequate. But I told you, what I really desire is to see you undone beneath me,” Damen said, his voice slightly raspy with want.

With that, Damen hooked his arms beneath Laurent's knees and then stood up, forcing Laurent to throw his arms around Damen's neck to keep from falling backward. Surprise—and, Damen was pleased to see, arousal—etched itself into his features.

“Do you always resort to brute strength?” Laurent's words were unsteady.

Damen smiled, and fastened his lips underneath Laurent's jaw, working a mark into the pale skin there. Murmuring into his ear, Damen replied, “Not always.”

He turned and knelt on the bed, laying Laurent down softly beneath him. Laurent let his arms slip from Damen's neck and fall to rest above his head, a seductive, enthralling sprawl that somehow still felt commanding, coming from Laurent. Damen released Laurent's knees to brace himself above him, allowing Laurent to stretch one leg out, his other still bent at Damen's side.

Damen couldn't believe that it was Laurent here with him, that the man who had used his words to wound, who had scored the skin from his back in hatred, was lying beneath him like a young, chaste lover. Damen sat back and brought his hands to the laces of Laurent's shirt, drawing them out and parting the thin fabric.

Then the laces were undone, and Damen slid his hands underneath, fitting them to Laurent's ribs, mapping the peaks and valleys of Laurent's body. He leaned forward, pushing the shirt up Laurent's arms, catching his lips in a soft kiss as he pulled it free and threw it to the side. Damen let his hands return to Laurent's waist, finally bare under his touch, and felt Laurent react, then contain it.

Wasting no time, Damen began a slow exploration with his mouth, moving down Laurent's throat, over his collarbone, further down to his chest. Laurent's breathing was slightly jagged, his sides moving beneath Damen's hands. Damen kissed across his skin, then flicked just the tip of his tongue across Laurent's nipple, causing Laurent to lurch slightly beneath him, a sharp intake of breath betraying him.

Although the reaction was not as strong as Damen had wanted, he was beginning to understand that he wasn't going to get the loud moans, the head tossing, the performances he was used to from his lovers. Instead, Laurent's responses came out in small movements, in soft, sweet noises that drove Damen crazy. He wanted to coax every little sound out of Laurent he could.

He moved down Laurent's body, kissing every bit of skin he encountered until he met fabric. Laurent's hips moved slightly beneath him, and Damen looked up and smiled. “Patience,” he said—it earned him an icy glare—and then he sat back on his heels, running his hands down Laurent's fully-clothed thighs. Reaching his boots, Damen dragged them off slowly, dropping them to the floor.

He slid his hands back up to where the last set of laces he hoped to encounter kept the rest of Laurent from him. Looping his fingers into them, he drew the ties through, until the last of them were parted. He hooked his fingers into the edge of the fabric and pulled, peeling the expensive cloth off Laurent until he was finally, beautifully, undone.

He sat for a moment, admiring the long, lean lines of Laurent's body. Laurent, still laid out in his indolent sprawl, looked back at him through heavily-lidded eyes. He was half roused, which both pleased and disgruntled Damen—no matter, he would take care of that soon. Damen himself was still achingly hard, his body disagreeing with his choice to halt himself on the edge.

Damen lifted one of Laurent's legs, light as alabaster, and rested it on his shoulder. With intentional care, he turned his head and kissed the inside of Laurent's ankle. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Laurent's eyes widened, genuine surprise hidden in the gesture.

Damen continued, moving to kiss up Laurent's calf. They both knew that, for a slave, it was extremely bold and extremely intimate to touch their master like this. Damen knew that Laurent understood what he was doing, what he was implying, and he saw with satisfaction that Laurent was stirred by it.

He took his time, careful to attend to each inch of skin on his way up. The further he went, the more he could feel the tension rise in Laurent, the muscles underneath him winding tight. But he also saw how much it was affecting Laurent, whose cock was now fully hard against his stomach.

Damen yearned to savor Laurent, to take him in his mouth and wring gasps and moans out of him. But he had seen enough by now to know that Laurent liked touches soft as whispers. He wanted to see just how much he could lure Laurent out of his shell. His own heart was beating hard against his ribs at the sight of Laurent like this, with him, choosing him. Overcome with devotion and desire, Damen leaned in and nuzzled against Laurent's cock, sighing a hot breath against him. The tension in Laurent crested, and Damen felt him push it down forcefully.

“Wait,” Laurent said breathlessly, having come up to brace himself on his elbows. “I...”

Damen noted the furrow in Laurent's brow and paused, concerned. “Do you not want this?”

Laurent did not immediately reply. Damen waited. “I...I don't know if I want it. I've never had it. I don't know what it feels like.”

The admission rolled through Damen on a wave of longing. He loved coaxing pleasure out of the inexperienced, watching as their hesitancies were replaced with passion and abandon. It was one of his favorite parts of lovemaking, seeing the other in rapture and knowing that he had caused it. His mind was overrun with the thought of Laurent arching beneath him, losing himself to Damen's mouth, of being the first to taste Laurent.

“Would you like to find out?”

Laurent's eyes were wide and dark, and that strange, taut energy still coursed through him. Such a contradiction, to see him so filled with desire as well as with dread. Damen didn't understand it, but he didn't need to. He only needed to know that Laurent wanted it. His breaths coming quickly, Laurent hesitated only a moment more, then nodded.

Humming with gratification, Damen leaned back down, pressing his lips across Laurent's stomach, his hips, and then, without further delay, he focused his attention to where he really wanted to be. Wrapping his hand around Laurent—and enjoying the slight jerk that produced—he brought his mouth down and tasted Laurent in a long, hot stripe from base to tip.

The reaction from Laurent was immediate and, in comparison to his usual restraint, intense. A gasp tore from his lips, and his stomach clenched involuntarily. It appeared that, despite his expert lesson given to Ancel, Laurent had no reference for this sensation. Pleased, Damen applied himself in earnest.

Damen remembered the easy commands Laurent had given Ancel, and a small, vindictive part of him wanted retaliation. Holding Laurent down at the hips, he used Laurent's own words against him, translating it back with his mouth. Lightly, he tongued his way across the head, then pressed it against the slit. Laurent's upright knee fell to the side, an unconscious opening as his hips moved under Damen's palms.

Satisfied by the reaction, Damen lingered, pressing his tongue flat against the underside of the head as he brought his mouth fully around Laurent's cock. Tiny tremors had begun under Damen's fingers, as Laurent forced himself into control. Damen was more than willing to test just how strong that control was.

After a generous amount of time focused on the tip, Damen pressed his thumbs into Laurent's hips and took all of him in one long slide. Laurent, unprepared for the feel of it, dropped back from where he had been half-propped on his elbows, watching Damen, to collapse against the sheets. Damen slid back up to the head, then pressed down again, building a steadily increasing rhythm.

Tuned to Laurent's body, every soft sound and spasm that he earned from Laurent went straight to Damen's cock. Looking up through his eyelashes, he saw that Laurent's every muscle was taut, his fingers fisted in the sheets, his head thrown to the side. The tension in Laurent's body was to the point of breaking, and yet he wouldn't let himself over the edge. Damen drew himself up with one last drag of his tongue from base to tip, and then shifted forward, sliding his body up to look at Laurent.

Cupping his cheek in one hand, Damen turned his face to look him in the eye. “Laurent. Relax.”

Laurent took a few deep breaths, then, with a ghost of a smile, said, “I—have a hard time with that.”

“Really? I hadn't noticed.”

Laurent closed his eyes, leaning his head into Damen's palm, a tender gesture that Damen cataloged to his memory. “I've never...I don't know how this is supposed to work.”

Damen tilted his head, unsure of what Laurent was telling him. “You've never bedded anyone before?”

Laurent opened his eyes, his face slightly troubled. In a strange voice, he replied, “No, I have....it was just—different. You are different.”

Damen's chest was tight. His voice was low and intimate. “Whatever it was like before, it's just you and me now. Let me show you what it's supposed to feel like, when you allow yourself to take pleasure as well as give it.”

Laurent's cheeks were flushed, his eyes open and honest. “Yes.”

Damen didn't give him a chance to catch his breath. He pulled Laurent into a desperate, deep kiss, dragging his teeth gently across Laurent's bottom lip. He was content to stay like this, exploring Laurent's mouth with his tongue, feeling how much Laurent enjoyed it. For lazy, heavy minutes, they simply kissed, sharing breaths. Their bodies were pressed together from chest to hip, legs intertwined, Damen's fingers tangled in Laurent's hair.

As the kisses grew more heated, their bodies began to move together in instinct, turning kissing into something else. Damen was all too aware of Laurent, hard beneath him, and his own heavy need. A slight shift of Laurent's hips aligned them, their cocks sliding together between them. Their kiss broke as Laurent pressed his head back into the sheets, a low groan escaping his lips. Well enjoying the sight, Damen repeated the movement, his lips on Laurent's neck, until Laurent was panting and curving into him.

“Damen...” he breathed. The sound of his name said like that had Damen about to spill right then and there. With herculean effort, he contained himself, distracting himself along Laurent's jawline until he could continue.

“Damen, I want...” Laurent cut off with a sound deep in his throat as Damen pressed them together, a particularly slow drag.

“I love seeing you like this,” Damen said, drowning in the darkening blue of Laurent's gaze. “I love hearing you, feeling you. I would beg the sun to forget to rise, just once, to stay like this with you just a little bit longer.”

Damen's words had more of an effect on Laurent than anything else had so far, his breath falling out in a shatter as he arched against Damen. The perfect feel of him, silky and hot, had Damen burying a moan in Laurent's neck.

“Damen....Damen, please...”

“Tell me. Tell me what you want.”

“I want...everything you said before. I want it to be simple. I want you to make me forget. All of it, except this. Except you.” Laurent swallowed, honesty bringing out his youth.

Damen's thoughts were scattered fragments, yearning tearing through his chest like fire. He never thought....to hear those words from Laurent...it was overwhelming. Need and tenderness and protectiveness of this true Laurent washed over him. It was as though Damen's ribs had been pried apart, his heart raw and vulnerable, bared to the world.

“I need to have you,” Damen said around the constriction in his throat. “I can't....I need to be inside you.”

A shudder passed through Laurent, and he reached blindly to his side. Damen saw what he was searching for, and leaned over to what was left of the shattered oil lamp that he had placed on the bedside table. Though broken, there was still some oil in the chamber, and Damen clumsily gathered it in his fingers. His eyes never leaving Laurent's, he shifted down, bringing one of Laurent's knees up to his shoulder.

“Do it,” Laurent ordered through a tight breath.

The first press of Damen's finger was slow and gentle, surrounded by tight heat. Laurent's calf twitched against Damen's shoulder, drawing him closer, deeper. Damen was engulfed in the feel of it, in the small, helpless sounds and movements Laurent made beneath him. He could feel Laurent opening, slowly, and pressed a second finger in to join the first. Laurent gasped and jerked against him, the tension in his body not allowing the stretch.

“Relax. Let me in,” Damen said, running his fingertips along Laurent's calf. He felt the moment Laurent forced his muscles to loosen, and Damen shifted his body forward to wrap his other arm beneath Laurent. Damen's fingers had started to move, and Laurent was rocking slightly with the rhythm, his heel pressed into Damen's back.

Damen was suspended in disbelief, the reality of it crashing over him in waves, that this was happening. That Laurent was going to let him inside. Had already let him inside. Each movement of Damen's fingers stretched Laurent a bit more, and Damen was overcome with the thought of seating himself deep, of merging himself with Laurent in this tight heat, of watching Laurent come beneath him.

“Damen,” Laurent growled. “That's enough. Fuck me.”

Damen's cock throbbed, and he wanted nothing more than to obey. He slid his fingers out, leaning up to kiss Laurent, trying to convey everything he couldn't say out loud.

“Turn over.”

Damen leaned back, and with a hard push of breath, Laurent flipped to his stomach, presenting himself to Damen. Leaning over to coat himself in the last of the oil, Damen took a moment to look at Laurent, the soft curves where Damen had just been, where he would be again. Laurent had his head turned, his cheek resting on his forearms, looking at Damen. When Damen reached out to run his hand down Laurent's side, he closed his eyes and trembled.

Damen wanted to savor this, to draw it out, but his will was gone, the need to be inside Laurent unbearable. He leaned over Laurent, lining himself up. He felt Laurent tense at the feeling, at the anticipation, and Damen laid gentle kisses along his spine, whispering to him that he would never hurt him, that Laurent could let go, that he could stop thinking. With a shudder, Laurent eased, and then there was only heat as Damen pressed inside.

Laurent's cry tore through Damen, as time splintered, sensation overcoming them both. There was nothing but Laurent and Damen and the slow, long drive into Laurent's body, Damen's chest pressed against Laurent's back, the nape of Laurent's neck damp with sweat, tendrils of his hair darkened by it. Despite his past lovers, Damen had never felt this. It was exquisite and excruciating, it was impossible and devastating.

Desperation threatened to overwhelm Damen, as inch by inch he slid deeper. He ached to thrust all the way inside, for them to be as close as possible. But beneath him was Laurent, arched and panting, and he wanted to feel every second, every sweet give. And more than that—he wanted Laurent to feel it, to know the pleasure he could have, that no one had shown him before.

All Damen knew was heat, until finally he was fully buried in Laurent. He paused to give them both a chance to adjust to the feeling, pressing his forehead against Laurent's spine, murmuring to him unthinkingly in Akielon. His arm had wrapped around Laurent, his fingers curled gently around his neck.

“Damen,” Laurent said, his voice ragged, “I need you to...to move...”

Damen drew his hips out, agonizingly slow, until just the head of his cock was inside, then pressed back in. Laurent made a vulnerable, drawn-out sound beneath him, and Damen surrendered to the feel of it, to the gleam of Laurent's skin in the lamplight, to the ache in his chest.

His every instinct screamed for him to be closer, deeper, to lose himself to Laurent. He began to move, Laurent's muscles moving with him, rocking back against him. Damen's shattered breaths stirred the hair at the back of Laurent's neck, Laurent's tiny, lovely cries echoing the rhythm of Damen's hips.

He had never thought, never dreamed, that he could be here, that he could feel like this. The armies outside, the plots and dangers that waited ahead of them, all of it was forgotten in the need that curled low in Damen's stomach, in the sound of Damen's name falling helplessly from Laurent's lips, in the sight of Laurent's fingers clutching the silk of the sheets.

“Laurent,” Damen said, and that was the only word he could say, the only word that mattered anymore. He buried himself deep, and it wasn't enough, couldn't ever be enough.

“Yes,” Laurent breathed, the Veretian word sharp and alluring on Laurent's tongue. He repeated it, and their bodies moved together to the sound of it. Damen's hand was solid on Laurent's throat, claiming Laurent as his, as much as the gold of the slave collar had claimed Damen as Laurent's.

He reached around with his other hand, relinquishing his full weight to Laurent, driving him deeper. He wrapped his hand around Laurent's cock, matching the pace to their hips, and Laurent's body responded, desperate cries tearing from his throat.

Through the haze of pleasure, Damen realized he was speaking, a stream of irrepressible words in Akielon, everything he had wanted to say and couldn't before.

“You feel so good, Laurent, I never want this to end...” Laurent had turned his head, looking back at Damen, and he could look nowhere else. “You look so good like this, I want to see you come beneath me...”

Laurent's hips stuttered against his own. “Damen.”

Searing heat pulsed through Damen at the fervor in Laurent's voice. He moved his hand from Laurent's throat to curl his fingers through Laurent's, brushing up against the slave cuff. “You wear my gold, and I wear yours, you're mine, I will keep you with me, I will protect you...”

Laurent arched, his fingers clutching tight in Damen's grip. “Damen, I need....please, I want to....”

“Yes,” Damen breathed, still lost in the devouring blue of Laurent's gaze. He drove himself hard into Laurent, as deep as he could.

Laurent cried out, and then he was coming beneath Damen, with a last shout of “Damianos,” as he shuddered under Damen's touch.

At the sound of his name spoken by Laurent, undone and unrestricted, Damen broke, the pieces of his heart rearranging themselves around it, around this moment. He lost himself to it, trying to grasp onto every sensation, to hold on, but it was too much. Obeying the low, Veretian commands from Laurent that he was only half aware of, he buried himself one last time, and let the bright, warm pleasure overcome him, carrying him over the edge of brilliant, shattering release, all-consuming and obliterating.

Chapter Text

The second time, it was slow and sweet. Laurent, curled with his back against Damen's chest, had shifted purposefully until Damen was fully awakened. Lying on their sides, with Damen pressed tight to Laurent's back, arm curled around his chest, Damen had taken him. Laurent had reached behind him to thread his fingers into Damen's curls, pulling him closer so that they could exchange long, unhurried kisses over his shoulder.

Laurent had been more generous with his reactions, allowing moans and sighs to escape his lips, throwing his head back against Damen and tightening his fingers in Damen's hair when Damen pressed particularly deep. The slower Damen went, the more Laurent responded, his skin exceedingly sensitive to light, idle touches. When Laurent shuddered to completion, he pulled Damen in to kiss him, and the feel of his gentle groans against Damen's mouth quickly pushed Damen over the edge with him.

Damen could imagine it like this, a lifetime spread out in front of them, with time to linger and explore and savor. With nothing to stop them from staying in bed all day together, drenched in sunlight and each other. With time to teach Laurent all the pleasures he deserved, to wander aimlessly through gardens together, to memorize the sound of Laurent's laughter.

It ached, to know that it was beyond his grasp. Even if they succeeded, even if they didn't die trying to overthrow the Regent and reclaim Damen's throne from Kastor, they remained kings of separate countries, duties and obligations forcing them apart.

For a wild, outrageous moment, Damen lost himself to the fantasy. Let Kastor have the throne. Let the Regent rule Vere. They can have their hateful, deceitful crowns. We could divulge ourselves of our heavy responsibilities, disappear into a happy, easy life.

I would lose everything...and gain this. And it would be enough.

It was impossible. It was irresponsible and selfish and dangerous. Tomorrow they would both have to face the realities in front of them.

But for now, for this tender, dark night, Damen could dream.

*****

After, Laurent rose to gather towels and a pitcher of water. He wiped both of them clean, an unexpectedly thoughtful and attentive gesture, then crawled into the sheets beside Damen. For a moment, they just laid there, facing each other. Then, unable to tolerate the distance between them, Damen shifted them until Laurent was laying on one of his arms, his head curled into the hollow of Damen's shoulder. Damen absently trailed his fingers along Laurent's back, his hair, the curve of his ear.

Laurent looked up at Damen, a wry twist to his mouth. “This is not what I had in mind, you know.”

“'This?'” Damen asked softly.

“It's quite possibly the least effective revenge anyone has ever had,” Laurent said.

Damen smiled, but remained quiet. Despite Laurent's light tone, he could sense that something was just under the surface, that this seemingly easy bed talk was simply a facade for what lay deeper. He wanted Laurent to come to it in his own time. Silence stretched between them, warm and heavy, until finally Laurent spoke again, tilting his head to look up at the silk draped in swaths above them.

“Every time I thought of the day we would face each other, it was with swords between us. Then you came along, bound and chained, and you saved my life, over and over again.” He paused. “I wanted to hate you. I wanted it so bad it hurt. I convinced myself I did hate you.”

Damen was very still. Laurent continued, not meeting Damen's eyes.

“I was constantly aware of your presence. When I wasn't near you, I wondered where you were, what you were doing, what you were thinking. I let myself believe it was my lifelong obsession, nothing more. I hated that you were a good man. When you refused to touch a child pet, when you bargained for the other slaves with your own pride, when you fought against the killers my uncle sent to my rooms...every action you took was in direct contradiction to what I believed about you.

“But I couldn't accept it. Because what did it mean if a good man had killed my brother? It would have been infinitely easier if you had been loathsome, so I could keep you as the uncomplicated, monstrous villain I had created in my mind. I kept waiting for you to leave, or to turn on me, or to show me that you were a trick, just another piece of my uncle's game. To prove my younger self right. To give me a reason.

Laurent turned back to Damen, his eyes lowered so that Damen could only see a sliver of blue through the golden fringe of his eyelashes. He reached over and softly brushed his fingers over Damen's chest. The touch burned, a shock of gentleness. “But you never did. You stayed, even when I didn't want you to, even when I provoked and abused and insulted you. Even when you had no reason to remain by my side.” A pause. “You're the only one who ever stayed.”

Damen felt something catch in his throat.

“And instead of killing you, I let you bed me.” Laurent pushed out a small breath of amusement. “At least now my uncle's accusations are true. He'll be so pleased.”

Damen didn't laugh. Laurent finally met his gaze, the turmoil there almost too hard to bear. “You killed my brother.”

“Yes,” said Damen with helpless honesty.

Something in Laurent crumbled, a wall that had been held up for so long that it was ruinous when it finally came down. It felt like the foundation that the rest of him had been built on, and Damen could almost feel the other barriers crashing down around it, aftershocks echoing through Laurent's body. Laurent's chest heaved with deep, barely-controlled breaths, and Damen pulled him closer, wrapping him in his arms.

He wondered if Laurent had ever allowed himself this. If he had buried the agony of losing his brother, never letting it see the light of day. Never feeling it. A thirteen-year-old, deciding that the world was too cruel to see his grief, that it made him too weak.

Or maybe...maybe he had shared it, only to have it turned on him. The first manipulation, the first sharp stab of betrayal. Maybe he had been soft, and the world hadn't deserved him, so it had forced the softness out of him.

The cruel irony of finding comfort in the very arms of the man who had caused this sorrow was not lost on Damen. He held Laurent tight, as if he could absorb the pain, siphon it off Laurent by contact alone. He murmured apologies into Laurent's hair, whispered penance and promises.

“If I could give him back to you, I would. I'm sorry, Laurent. I'm so sorry. I would take his place, without hesitation.”

It took a long time for Laurent's shuddering breaths to cease. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet but decisive. “No. I wouldn't have you take his place. I would have you stay right here, next to me.”

The words sank into Damen's skin, like sunlight on the first warm day of spring. “As long as you want me, I'll be here,” Damen said around the sharpness in his chest. Laurent let out a long exhale, his body at last relaxing into stillness.

Laurent pulled back a bit to look at Damen. His face was open, a little lost. “I lived my whole life waiting for my revenge, for the chance to face you and avenge Auguste, or die trying. Every decision I made, every lesson I took, every moment I trained—it was all built around that. Now...I don't know what my purpose is anymore.”

“You were born to rule, Laurent. As I was. That is your purpose. To free your country from the unnatural influence of the Regent, his twisted games, his deplorable pleasures.”

A small breath escaped Laurent, the corners of his mouth curling up slightly. “I was never born to rule. I was born for quieter things. Books. Horses. Maps. Who knows what I would have become? Auguste was the one born to rule. He was everything that I am not.”

Damen was quiet for a moment, trying to find the right words. “Auguste nearly broke us that day. Line after line shattered upon his sword. He was the best fighter I've ever seen. And he fought with honor. That is what I remember more than anything.” The words were clearly hard for Laurent to hear, but he was bearing them. “I did not know him, but from everything I've heard, he was a great man. He would have been a great king.”

A muscle twitched in Laurent's jaw as Damen continued. “When I first came to Arles, I couldn't understand the loyalty your men had for you. All I saw was the hatred, the cruelty. But then I came to know you. You are thoughtful, and precise, and too clever by half. You're stubborn and unyielding and you will stop at nothing to do what is necessary for your country. You inspire your people, Laurent. They show out in droves simply to see you, their golden prince.”

“I—that's not—” Laurent tried to pull away, but Damen tightened his grip.

“No. You need to hear this, to understand it, or you will never become the king you can be. You still think of yourself as the younger, lesser brother, unworthy of your throne. You hold Auguste in all the untouchable glory that you remember from when you were a child. I understand what it is to worship an older brother, to believe they are perfect, to see them without flaws. To be certain you will never measure up. I think you are trying to prove that you can be like him. But you are not Auguste, Laurent. He had his strengths, as you have yours. He may have been a great fighter, but you have an incredible mind and unwavering fortitude, two things that Vere desperately needs now. Every drop of honor that I saw that day flows through your veins. More, perhaps. You are a true leader, whether that was your original path or not. You, too, will be a great king.”

Laurent had closed his eyes, absorbing the words silently. When he opened them, his long, fixed stare was searching. “And you? Where does your path lead?”

“I....” The truth was, Damen no longer knew the answer to that question. I return to Akielos, he should say. To Ios, and my throne. It should have been so easy to say those words. It was everything he wanted.

Or at least, it had been.

“I will help you gain your throne, whatever it takes,” Damen said after a moment. “And then...”

“And then you gain your own,” said Laurent plainly.

It shouldn't feel like thorns in his throat, to say one simple word. “Yes.”

Laurent's expression was accepting, almost peaceful. “It is not yet morning. Tomorrow, and all that it brings us, can wait.”

With that, Laurent rolled and pressed Damen into the sheets, pulling the silk above their heads.

*****

Damen woke slowly, emerging from the warm, heavy oblivion of sleep. Awareness returned in pieces, scattered and sweet, half-remembered moments amidst the bright memory of pleasure. He didn't want to open his eyes, to face the daylight. If he could just stay like this, with Laurent...

He rolled to his side, reaching out blindly, his fingers searching for Laurent—expecting the softness of his skin, or at the very least a warm imprint where his body had lain moments before. Instead, the silk beside him was cold and empty.

His eyes snapped open, and he found himself the sole occupant of the tent. The light was still thin, telling Damen that it had not been long ago that dawn had broken. Only the fact that he was in Laurent's tent, not his own, confirmed that last night had not been a dream.

A quiet, unsettled feeling bloomed in the pit of his stomach, overtaking the warm satisfaction that he felt when he thought of the night before. He reasoned with himself. Laurent was surely using the early morning to begin planning his next steps, perhaps needing to gather his mind after all that had happened the night before.

And yet...no, Damen refused to believe it. He had promised. He wouldn't have.

Damen rose, fighting down the deepening panic he felt despite his attempts to reassure himself. He needed to find Laurent. Now.

Arranging his chiton and pinning it back into place, Damen paused at the center table. It took his mind a moment to realize what was different.

His slave collar was in the same spot it had been placed and forgotten the night before. Damen's throat felt strange, bare without it. The gold had a faint gleam in the soft light.

And in the space in the center of it, long and glinting, was a single sapphire earring.

*****

The panic crested, overflowing in Damen's chest, his breath tight. He forced himself to push it down, to contain it. He succeeded—barely.

Striding out of the tent, Damen took stock of the camp. It was beginning to wake up, the sounds of work beginning, the guard shift changing. Damen realized he had no idea where to start looking. After a lost moment deciding which direction to go, a thought struck Damen, one that should have immediately occurred to him, had he not been preoccupied with his worry.

If Laurent had left, he would have needed a horse, and in that case, he would have encountered the hostler. Damen turned towards the new light of the morning and struck a path between the tents to the temporary structure that stabled the horses, the ones who were too important to be left with the majority of the soldiers' mounts picketed in the open.

Damen made a sharp turn around the tents and found himself face-to-face with Nikandros.

Pulling up short, Nikandros gave a short bow, his face surprised.

“Damen...I didn't expect to see you so early, after last night's revelries. I sought you out late, but you weren't in your tent, so I assumed you were still...” A furrow appeared in Nikandros' brow, and he looked back the way Damen had come, towards Laurent's tent. Dull disbelief overtook his features. “Unless you never returned to your own tent. Unless you found comfort in another's.”

“I—”

“You wasted no time. Apparently it was easier to find your way into his bed than you thought it would be.”

“Nik—”

“I hope it was at least worth it,” Nikandros said, his eyes flat with aversion. “Was he as ice-cold on the inside as he looks on the outside?”

“Nik, I don't have time for this!” The words came out in a growl, leaving Damen's lips in a rush of frustration. “Have you seen Laurent?”

Nikandros let out a small huff of laughter, devoid of humor. “Not as much as you have, apparently.”

“That is enough, Nikandros. This is serious.”

A flicker of genuine concern passed over Nikandros' face at the tone of Damen's voice. “No, I have not seen him since last night. What's wrong?”

Damen raked his hand through his hair, dread curling tightly in his stomach. “Last night, we received a herald, carrying a message from the Regent. He has accused Laurent of high treason, and given him an ultimatum. To submit to his uncle and accept his execution, or the only person Laurent cares for at court will be killed instead. A child.”

Nikandros swore.

“I was supposed to go in his place.” Damen ignored the alarm and displeasure that flared in Nikandros' eyes at that. “He promised—I was supposed to go in his place!

The words burst forth, irrepressible. Anger, fear, and despair waged war in Damen's heart. He closed his eyes, trying to rein himself in, taking deep, controlled breaths. He opened them, and turned to Nikandros, helpless.

“He's gone, Nik. Laurent is gone.”

Chapter Text

The hostler confirmed that Laurent had ridden out an hour before dawn, heading north and east. Towards Chasteigne. A dull, pulsing horror had replaced Damen's frantic fear. Laurent was only a few hours ahead of Damen, but he was a very skilled rider with a good horse. He would not make the mistake of pushing his mount into exhaustion. Damen would never catch him, not in time.

His thoughts were interrupted by the abrupt arrival of Jord, slightly out of breath and agitated. “Damen—Your Highness—have you seen Aimeric?” He turned to Nikandros. “Either of you?”

A knot formed in Damen's chest. “He is not with you?”

Jord shook his head. “I woke this morning and he was gone. It's unlike him—he's not known to be an early riser.”

The echo of Damen's own morning was too much of a coincidence. “The Prince is gone too. Is there any reason he would take Aimeric with him?”

Alarm flashed in Jord's eyes at the news of Laurent's departure. “I don't know why he would. Where has the Prince gone?”

“He's gone to Toulour, in Chasteigne.” Damen did not elaborate. He ran his fingers through his hair, scanning the horizon as if to see Laurent outlined there against the morning sky. He scoured his mind for the connection to Aimeric, but nothing presented itself. It was no matter. Damen could only follow one course. He turned to Nikandros.

Before he could speak, Nikandros was shaking his head. “You cannot be contemplating going after him. It's a death sentence, for you both.”

Damen clenched his jaw. “I will not leave him to die alone, in the clutches of his uncle.”

Nikandros regarded him, then ran a weary hand over his face. “Damen, I know how you are. You tumble someone and wake up thinking the sun rises and falls with them. But think, Damen. Think of who this is. You know what he is capable of, what deception lies in his mind. This could be his way of handing you over to the Regent, of getting rid of you once and for all.”

Anger simmered hot in Damen's chest. “If that was his intention, he would have simply let me go in his place, as we had planned. He knew who I was the entire time, Nik. If he wanted to kill me, I'd already be dead. He had a thousand chances to do it. He would rather die than give his uncle any advantage. That I know with certainty.”

“So this is your choice, then.” Nikandros was resigned, disappointed. “You've chosen your heart over your head. You will leave Akielos to Kastor's ruin.”

Damen stared hard at Nikandros, his eyes burning. “I am not choosing one over the other. I will find Laurent, I will return with him, and we will turn our focus south.”

Nikandros sighed. “Then you should take troops,” he said.

“No. One man will not attract attention, but a group of men would. I go alone. The Regent may know who I am, but I'm guessing he is waiting for the opportune moment to reveal that information, when it will bring the most humiliation to Laurent. I can use that to my advantage.”

Nikandros remained silent, apparently beyond words.

“Nikandros, I need you to do this for me. As your King and as your friend, I am asking you to trust me. I know that I didn't see the treachery of Kastor, of Jokaste, but I have learned a great deal about dishonesty and betrayal since then. Laurent is true.”

It looked like Nikandros was swallowing knives, but finally he gave Damen one short nod.

Damen turned to Jord, who had listened in silence to this exchange, though he was clearly troubled. “I'm sorry, Jord. I can't do anything about Aimeric now. I'm sure that he will turn up.”

Jord nodded, though it was clear he didn't believe him. “Bring him back to us, Damen. We have nothing without our Prince.”

Nikandros spoke up before Damen could reply. “And us? Would you have us wait for you?”

“No,” Damen said. “Time is precious. Get me Ravenel, Nik. I don't care how you get it. Take it apart stone by stone if you have to. Jord and the others will tell you all they know.” Jord nodded his assent. “Laurent and I will meet you there in four days' time. Ravenel is where we will begin our campaign to regain Akielos.”

He didn't mention that Ravenel would be almost impossible to take, nor what would happen if he didn't return. It was an unspoken truth understood by them all. If Damen did not return, Nikandros' entire army would be guilty of high treason, as would the Prince's Guard, and home would be only a forgotten memory, impossible to go back to. If he didn't return, that would mean Laurent was dead as well, and Vere would be hostile territory for them all. There would be nowhere any of them would be safe. Everything rested upon Damen's success or failure.

Damen must return, with Laurent, or all was lost.

*****

The rough, rolling hills sped past as Damen lost himself to the rhythm of hooves beating on the hard, packed ground. Toulour was nearly a day's ride away. Damen could get there faster, if he pushed his mount, but it would ruin the gelding, and he would need his horse fresh after he found Laurent. It tore at Damen, the choice to hold back, as his mind tortured him with visions of arriving moments too late. He was almost certain, though, that the Regent would draw it out, would turn it into public entertainment. He held tight to that bleak hope.

His emotions churned, with nothing to draw his mind away for the next several hours. Anger and fear played back and forth through his chest. He was furious at Laurent for lying to him, but Laurent was in serious danger, and Damen couldn't afford to be distracted. He cared too much about Laurent's safety to allow his outrage to interfere. Then again, Laurent was only in danger because he had lied to Damen and put himself right in the Regent's hands. Back to anger. Back to fear. It was a never-ending cycle that exhausted Damen.

As the hours drew on, the sun sliding across the sky, Damen's thoughts wandered back over the few months since his father's death and his own subsequent capture. He remembered vividly the man that he had thought Laurent was—vicious, spoiled, arrogant. That hadn't been very long ago. He had been so sure of Laurent's character, sure that the Regent was a much more suitable ruler. He had been taken in as surely as the court and Council had. As everyone had. Damen didn't know how Laurent had endured it, watching as one by one, the Regent turned them all against him.

He couldn't pinpoint where his feelings for Laurent had begun to change—though his mind quickly supplied him with a dangling earring, a hand on his thigh, a mound of blankets in front of a hearth fire, a chase over rooftops...

No, even before that, perhaps, to Laurent curled peacefully on a reclining couch, reading quietly, the instant before he looked up to see Damen and the unfamiliar men his uncle had sent to kill him. It had only been a moment before Laurent had been on his feet, returning to his normal, shuttered self, but in those few seconds before, Laurent's face had been youthful and open, his lithe body relaxed and without the usual tension. In retrospect, that was Damen's first glimpse at who Laurent truly was. Who he could have been, freely, if he hadn't been forced into this sick game of deception and betrayal. If Damen hadn't killed Auguste...

Damen had to shake his head to dislodge the thoughts. There was no point to his guilt. It would help no one. All of this was the fault of the Regent, the result of his hunger for power and his willingness to stop at nothing to eliminate his nephew, the last thing standing between him and the throne. The Regent would love nothing more than for Damen to tear himself apart with blame that was not truly his to bear.

Auguste's death would never be forgotten, nor should it be. It was a part of Laurent, and a part of Damen, formative pieces of their narratives. In a way, it was what had brought them together—Kastor would never have sent Damen to Vere if there hadn't been such a personal history between them.

Damen's thoughts turned to last night, to the feel of Laurent letting out seven years of grief in his arms. He could still hear the torn way that Laurent had said You killed my brother. It was all out in the open now, between them. There would be no more lies. The weight of his hidden identity had lifted off his shoulders, as if it had been removed with the collar. He thought of the way Laurent had said his name, his true name. His mind inevitably wandered to the fall of golden hair, the softness of skin against skin, the clutch of Laurent's fingers in his own as he finally let his barriers down.

The memories burned through him, chasing away his exhaustion, reminding him of his purpose. He would not let Laurent die, would not let the Regent win. After everything that had happened, all of the things they had overcome, this would not be where it ended.

You're the only one who ever stayed.

He spurred on his horse, navigating carefully over shale and granite, cutting as straight a line as he could. The sun crept closer and closer to the far horizon as he sped towards Toulour. Towards Laurent.

Damen couldn't change the past. But he would do everything in his power to change the future.

*****

Stars were wheeling overhead by the time Damen passed over the last hill and finally saw Toulour before him. He reined in his horse and dismounted, running a grateful hand over his horse's sweat-soaked, heaving neck. He walked forward, careful to keep to the treeline in case there were any scouts.

The fort of Toulour was not a grand, towering stronghold like Ravenel or Fortaine. It was modest, but well-kept. Warm light spilled from the windows into the night. It seemed a strange place to choose to strike down the Crown Prince—the Regent and his court were full of opulence and overindulgence, every stage set with luxury and debauchery. This was not what he had pictured as the backdrop for the Regent's final blow.

Damen's heart screamed for him to draw his sword and charge in, killing any man who chose foolishly to stand between him and Laurent. His instincts, though, forced him to stay still, to evaluate the situation. Years of tactical training kicked in, as he took in the size of the fort, the grounds around it, the men he could see stationed on the battlements. He was one man. He would not be able to enter by force.

The revelation did not please him, when it came. Trickery and deceit were the tools of Laurent's trade, not his. He preferred honest fighting, fair fighting, the strain of muscle against muscle and the ringing song of steel against steel. The knowledge that, in the end, the stronger man would win.

You would prefer that, Laurent's dry, biting voice said in his head. It tends to favor giant animals like yourself. I, on the other hand, have to rely on a bit more than brute strength if I want to win. There is no such thing as a fair fight.

If the situation hadn't been so serious, Damen would have laughed at his predicament. It was fitting, in a particularly Veretian way, that he would end up having to rely upon Laurent's own tactics to rescue him. Damen wasn't sure that he could pull it off, having no natural skill for duplicity. But months spent in Laurent's company had taught him enough that he thought he could do it.

He had to. Laurent's life, and his own, depended on it.

*****

Chapter Text

Fitting the slave collar back around his own neck was a surreal and complicated feeling. He couldn't believe that he was willingly putting it back on. A whisper of the old rage and helplessness he had felt tangled with a strange comfort, the collar a familiar weight, an embrace and a declaration. For a moment he had to fight against the onslaught of emotions. He didn't have time to examine them, not while Laurent was in danger.

He couldn't fully clasp the collar, not without a blacksmith, but it would stay on enough to serve his purposes. Only close scrutiny would reveal that it was not fastened, and if someone had the chance to notice, it would mean that Damen had bigger problems. He would have to do without the second cuff—there was nothing to be done about that. Knowing that Laurent, wherever he was, was wearing the matching cuff alleviated his anxiety just a bit. It felt like a direct connection between them, a lifeline linking them together.

Damen had changed back into the Veretian clothing that he had worn for their departure from Arles before he had raced out of the camp that morning. He loosened the ties at his wrist and his throat to reveal the gleam of gold, hoping that no one questioned the fact that his right wrist remained tightly laced to hide the absence of the second cuff.

If Laurent were with him, he would most likely already have a precise plan, complete and infuriatingly effective. Probably involving outlandish disguises and clever wordplay, or a plot hatched in the dark weeks ago, finally coming to fruition.

If Laurent's planning was like a detailed map, Damen's was more like a vague outline that just barely indicated what was land and what was sea. It wasn't complicated, simple enough to get the job done. Get into the keep. Find Laurent. Get out. The slave collar was the extent of his disguise. The rest he would have to figure out as he went.

He tied his horse within the copse of trees, close enough to a small stream that it could drink if it wished. Reluctantly, he left his sword with the horse, knowing he would never get it past the guards. It felt like walking in naked, even though he could hardly be wearing more clothing. Swallowing down his discomfort, he turned and picked his way down the hillside, then, against all instincts, strode directly into the light from the windows and up to the front gate.

*****

He immediately found himself face-to-face with three guards, all with swords trained directly on him. He dimly recognized the man on the left from his time at the palace, part of the Regent's Guard. That was who he addressed.

“I have come to speak to the Regent. I have important information to pass along that he asked me to obtain.”

He saw the guards take him in, noting with satisfaction that their eyes lingered on the gold that marked him.

The guard in the middle scoffed. “And what information would a slave have that would interest the Regent?”

The guard to the left was eyeing him speculatively, and Damen saw the moment of recognition. This was his first gamble. The Regent clearly knew that the man gifted to his nephew was, in fact, the King of Akielos—he had conspired with Kastor in this, after all. His only hope was that he had judged correctly, that the Regent would wait to reveal his identity as the final, incontrovertible evidence of Laurent's treason. If he had guessed wrong, if the Regent had exposed him, his rescue attempt was over before it began.

The guard stepped forward, his sword still at the ready. “This isn't just any slave. This is the Akielon beast, the personal bed slave of the Prince of Vere.” Ignoring the surprise from the other two guards, he watched Damen, looking him up and down.

“First you, then the Akielon Prince-Killer. We thought the Prince didn't fuck, but it turns out he just has a type,” the guard said, his words laden with disgust. Despite the disrespect, Damen was flooded with relief. They didn't know who he was.

The guard continued. “Have you come to tell the Regent where his nephew is? Is he coming to face the consequences of his treason like a man, or has he decided to hide like the coward he is, in the midst of Akielon dogs?”

Dull anger pulsed through Damen at the insult to both him and Laurent. The words didn't make sense. Had the guards not been told that Laurent was already here? It reeked of the Regent, secrecy and lies. There was nothing for Damen to do but go with it.

“My news is for the Regent alone. We struck the deal months ago, my freedom in exchange for the proof of the Prince's treachery.” The words felt twisted coming out of his mouth, but they seemed to satisfy the guards.

“Your freedom for fucking the Prince?” The third guard said. “Hell of a deal. I hope the Prince enjoyed it, at least—bending over for you has brought him to his ruin. For his sake, I hope it was worth it.” He eyed Damen as if he very much doubted that.

Damen thought of Laurent, of the press of their bodies together and their limbs tangled after. The guard had no idea of the truth, but his words brought a sick feeling to Damen's stomach all the same. It would be so much simpler for Laurent if he were free to hate Damen. He was afraid, he realized, that he was leading Laurent to disaster.

But it wouldn't matter if Laurent was already dead.

“Take me to the Regent.”

This was his second gamble. The last thing he truly wanted was to be brought before the Regent, but it was necessary to get inside. With the late hour, it was likely that the Regent was asleep, and Damen hoped that his guards were reluctant enough to disturb him that they would force him to wait until morning.

Luck was on his side. After some brief muttering between them, the guard he had recognized stepped forward. “You will come with me. You will be kept under lock until morning, at which time you can present your information to the Regent.”

*****

Damen allowed himself to be steered into the keep. He watched carefully where they were going, grateful that it was nowhere near as complicated as the palace had been. If he could find Laurent, he could get them out of here quickly and easily.

The room he was brought to was small and nearly empty, besides a plain bed. Damen was disappointed—he had hoped to be brought to the cells, where they were likely keeping Laurent. Now he would have to search, instead of being brought directly to his goal. But there was nothing to be done for it.

It was an easy matter to turn to the guard, duck inside his reach as he raised his sword, and, with a neat little twist of his wrist, disarm him. The surprise on the guard's face before Damen knocked him unconscious was a little insulting—as if it was a shock that a slave had overpowered him. They should have sent more than one guard.

Damen dragged the guard's body into the room, lifting it with a grunt onto the bed and covering it vaguely with bedding. If anyone came to check, a quick glance would appear to show Damen in bed where he should be. It was likely the guard would be out for several hours, with the blow to the head Damen had given him, but as a precaution, Damen searched him for the key to the room and locked him in. He needed all the time he could buy. He picked up the guard's fallen sword, relieved to have a weapon again.

Pausing outside the door, Damen had to make a decision. He looked to his right, where rooms and hallways branched off and a staircase went up to the next floor. He had no idea how the keep was laid out, but they had passed a staircase going down on their way here. It was as good a place as any to start, and if he was lucky he wouldn't have to venture further into the keep.

Turning back the way he had come, he had to press himself into a shadow as a pair of guards approached. They were casual, not expecting anything out of the usual, and passed by Damen without a glance. He waited for them to turn the corner, then moved cautiously in the other direction.

He ducked into the staircase, bringing his stolen sword up, ready to encounter a retinue of guards. Down the darkened staircase he went, each step taken carefully. Cold air drifted around him, throwing tiny shivers over his skin. After what felt like forever, he reached the bottom. No blows met his sword.

Two things became immediately apparent. He had found the cells—and they were empty.

*****

Damen swore under his breath, panic threatening to overtake him. How would he find Laurent now? There had to be fifteen rooms he could be in, at least. Damen couldn't simply burst through the doors until he found him, for fear of waking the entire household, or worse, the Regent.

He took a deep breath, forcing the panic down, and allowed himself a moment to evaluate. He tried to think like Laurent, to imagine what would suit the Regent best. Damen would have kept a prisoner, even an important one, in the cells and under heavy guard. But Laurent and the Regent usually did the opposite of whatever he would do, decisions that made no sense to Damen's practical mind.

It came to him, then. The Regent would have Laurent in one of the rooms that all keeps had for important visitors, a quiet mockery of how high Laurent had started, only to come so low. He would keep him in luxury, close to him, as he enjoyed his victory. It was a taunt, a final humiliation.

Damen turned and made his way back up the stairs.

The hallway was still and quiet as he crept back past the room he had been taken to. The richest rooms would be on the next floor, up the staircase Damen had seen to his right. Making his way quietly up them, he paused at the top, pressing himself to the wall and looking around the corner. There were two doors, one nearer to him on the left side of the hallway, and another further down the hall, on the right. Two guards stood on either side of the nearer door.

He took a few deep breaths, then pushed into the hallway. The two guards turned towards him, pulling their swords from their sheaths. It would have been easiest to parry the first swing, but the ring of steel on steel would almost certainly wake the Regent, who had to be in the room farther down the hallway. Damen ducked under the sword and grabbed the second guard by the front of his livery, whose surprise at Damen's sudden proximity momentarily gave Damen the advantage. He turned, pulling the guard in front of him, just in time for the first guard's sword to sink deep into the other guard's back, where Damen's had been only a moment before.

Damen let go of the guard, letting his body sink to the ground, pulling the sword out of the other's grip. With a quick, quiet blow, Damen dispatched the second guard, who fell just to the side of his companion.

A pang of regret pulsed through him. He didn't like killing if it wasn't on a battlefield, and even then it was a weight on his heart. The only crime these men were guilty of was loyalty. Then again, Damen thought, they decided the Regent was the right person to be loyal to. They should have chosen better. They should have chosen their Prince.

Damen turned to the door the men had been guarding, his heart beating at the thought of finding Laurent behind it, of getting him out of here. But before he could open the door, he heard a sound to his right. Turning, he brought his sword up, expecting more guards.

Instead, standing several feet down the hallway, blinking the sleep from his eyes, was Nicaise.

Chapter Text

His brown curls were tousled, and without his paint or jewelry, he looked as young as he was. When he was in the full splendor of a pet, especially when he lashed out with words far beyond his years, it was harder to remember that he was just a child. Standing here now, in a white silk robe thrown over a finely embroidered white nightshirt, with none of the adornment, it was impossible to forget.

His blue eyes sharpened as he recognized Damen. “You! What are you doing here?” Nicaise had lost none of his petulant tone in the time they had been gone from the palace.

Damen lowered his sword and, as if approaching a rabid fox to try to pet it, took one step slowly towards Nicaise. He watched as Nicaise took a step back and turned slightly towards the door he had come out of. Damen put up a hand, palm towards Nicaise, in a calming gesture to stop him from calling out.

“I'm here for Laurent,” he said, his voice quiet. “I have to get him out of here.”

A ripple of confusion passed over Nicaise's face. “He isn't here,” he said bluntly. “What are you really doing?”

Damen felt a cold trickle of fear run down his spine. It was one thing for the guards to be in the dark about Laurent's presence here, but for Nicaise to not know anything was—unsettling.

“Listen to me,” Damen said. “Laurent is in this room.” He indicated the door behind him, and Nicaise followed the movement, a furrow between his brow. “He is in grave danger. I need to get him out of here. And you need to come with us. The Regent plans to kill you both.”

Nicaise crossed his arms, his expression changing into childish pride. “The Regent would never harm me,” he said smugly.

“Are you sure about that? The Prince said that you had less than a year, and that was months ago,” said Damen. “You're what, fourteen? You're almost too old for him.”

A flicker of worry passed over Nicaise's features before he lifted his chin stubbornly. “I'm not like the others. He is going to keep me. He said that I'm special.”

“Then did he tell you the message he sent to the Prince? That if Laurent didn't come here for his execution, you would be killed in his place? Were you part of that plan?”

Nicaise's chest was rising and falling rapidly, his lip trembling slightly. “I'm—I'm sure it was just a trick. He wouldn't.”

Damen took another step towards him. “Please, listen to me, Nicaise. The Regent is dangerous. You can't stay here. Come with me and Laurent, we will take you somewhere safe. Laurent cares for you, he will give you everything you need for a comfortable life.”

Doubt and resentment had crept over Nicaise's face as he battled between what Damen was saying and what he wanted to believe. “He loves me,” he said in a small voice that shattered Damen's heart.

Damen adopted the gentlest tone he could. “No, Nicaise. It is not love, what he is doing to you. Love is selfless and giving and kind. The Regent is manipulative and cruel and—” Damen could not bring himself to describe the horrors that had been done to this child. “Come with us. You will see, then, the difference.”

Nicaise was shaking his head, and at that moment he looked even younger than he was. “I told you, Laurent isn't here,” he spat, grasping at that fact to avoid everything else Damen had said.

“Why would there be men guarding this room, then?”

“They weren't guarding it. The Regent doesn't allow any guards to stand directly outside our door. That's why they were over there. That room is empty. Go on, open it.”

Disconcerted—and ignoring the shiver of disgust that ran through him at the word our—Damen turned back, stepping over the guards' bodies to open the door.

It opened to reveal a grand, opulent room, adorned with red silks and the usual intricately carved Veretian ornamentation. Beautiful arched windows spanned the far wall, and there were reclining couches off to his left. The large bed was to the right, covered with pillows and heavily embroidered fabric.

He could see every corner of the room, and it was painfully clear that it was empty. Laurent was not here.

“I'm afraid the boy is telling you the truth,” said a deep, calm voice from behind him. The bottom dropped out of Damen's stomach, and he turned to find the Regent, standing with his arm around Nicaise.

Nicaise had tucked himself into the heavy silk of the Regent's over-robe, grasping for comfort from all that Damen had said. The Regent slowly stroked the boy's head, running his fingers through the soft brown curls. Damen's stomach turned at the sight.

“It's such a shame you came all this way,” the Regent continued, as if they were having polite conversation over dinner. “I'm sure your army is missing you. Though I must admit, I'm surprised to see you in Veretian clothing. And”—the Regent tilted his head theatrically— “are you still wearing the gold my dear nephew imprisoned you in? How quaint.”

Hot anger rose in Damen. He longed to end this here and now, to reach out and strike the Regent down where he stood. He held himself back, barely. If he killed the Regent, he would never find Laurent.

“Where is he?” he said, his voice deadly and quiet.

The Regent shook his head in mock sorrow. “Believe me, I am as disappointed that he isn't here as you are.” He said it in the clear, reasonable voice that he always used, the one that had deceived Damen at the palace. “I had hoped that he would find his courage, that he would finally act like the man he is, instead of a disobedient boy who didn't get his way.”

“You want me to believe you don't know where he is?” Damen asked, shaking with poorly-controlled rage.

“Oh, no, I know exactly where he is,” the Regent said, looking Damen straight in the eye. “You see, my nephew is very predictable. If you know the right leverage—” he looked down and smiled at Nicaise, pulling him closer, “—Laurent is quite easy to persuade.” He looked back up at Damen. “Unfortunately, the road he took was dangerous, and there are so very many places a man could get waylaid.”

Damen could taste the fear in his mouth, sour and biting. He refused to believe it. “You killed him.” He barely recognized his own voice.

“Oh no. I need Laurent alive, my dear....well, I suppose I should call you 'Your Highness', shouldn't I? Or do you prefer 'Exalted'? I can't quite keep track of Akielon titles when it comes to royalty.”

Nicaise looked up at Damen, his blue eyes huge with shock. “You...you're...”

The Regent looked down, speaking as if to a favorite son. “Hard to believe, isn't it? This is the former Crown Prince of Akielos, Damianos.” His eyes raked back over Damen. “Though it really doesn't matter now. I was so impressed with your restraint, pretending to be a slave in the palace. It must have been unbearable for you to serve Laurent. Though it seems you have—warmed up to him. Surely he wasn't so satisfying in bed as to shift your loyalty away from your own country.”

Damen swallowed down his hatred. “Laurent is twice the man that you are,” he said. “You, with your twisted, evil games, your lies and treachery. The throne is his, by birth and by right.”

“I think you'll find that I did nothing to force him into his treason,” the Regent said, his eyebrows lifting. “In fact, of the two of us standing here, you had more to do with it than I. The moment he climbed in your bed, he forfeited his right to rule.”

“As if that wasn't your plan from the start,” Damen said with contempt. “Conspire with my brother, give me to your nephew, get me into his bed, and then reveal who I am. It would wreck him, to know that he had unwittingly bedded his brother's killer, and in the same move you could get him out of your way.”

The Regent smiled at him indulgently, as if Damen had just figured out the answer to a particularly troublesome riddle. “You must admit, it would have been elegant. You, unfortunately, were harder to predict than my nephew. I hadn't dreamed that you would refuse to fuck him, or that you would step in to save his life. It was rather frustrating, I have to say. I was particularly disappointed that I didn't get to see his face when he found out who you are. Tell me, how did he react?”

The Regent's calm, pleasant voice stoked Damen's anger higher. “He knew who I was the moment he saw me dragged in front of him in chains,” he said. “I hate to deny you your sick pleasure, but everything he did, he did with the knowledge of who I truly am.”

Nicaise was listening closely, watching with an unidentifiable look in his eyes. The Regent shook his head. “How unsatisfying. I must say, I didn't think even Laurent was so debauched as to let you bend him over, knowing full well who you were. To debase himself so, to disrespect his brother's memory in such a way...” he trailed off. “It's quite—distasteful.”

Damen couldn't help the disgusted laugh that came forth. “Distasteful? There is nothing more distasteful than your own...proclivities,” he said, glancing down at Nicaise. “At least Laurent chooses lovers appropriate for his own age. Lovers who have a choice, and enjoy it in return.”

A spark of amusement kindled in the Regent's eyes, impossible to decipher. “I think you would find that Laurent's innocence is not quite as unsullied as you assume,” he said. Before Damen could ask what he meant, the Regent continued. “At any rate, I grow tired of this. I appreciate your willingness to appear at my nephew's trial. Your testimony will be invaluable.”

Damen felt a strong grasp on each of his arms, and looked around to find two new guards holding him in place. In his rage, he hadn't been paying attention to anything but the Regent. Jerking in their grip, he tried to pull away, but they were large men, and he couldn't get free. He looked back at the Regent, his gaze burning. “If you think for one second I would say anything against Laurent, anything to help you, you're even more deranged than I thought,” he hissed.

The Regent smiled. “Ah, you see, Damianos, that's the beauty of it. It doesn't matter what you say,” he said. “You could tell the Council every word I've said to you tonight, and it would change nothing. Your presence alone will be the rope with which my nephew hangs himself. Take him to the cells,” he told the guards, turning to go back to his room.

Nicaise pulled out of his grip, staring at Damen. He seemed to be trying to make a decision, uncertainty flashing over his face. Damen could see the moment he decided to speak, determination in his eyes.

“You have to tell the Prince something for me,” he said, though his voice quavered. The Regent frowned, turning back to him.

“No,” Damen said, a sudden dread creeping over him. He tried to drag himself forward. “Nicaise—don't say anything—”

“It's important,” the boy said in a rush, taking another step forward. “If you find him, you have to tell him that his father and his brother—”

The stroke was quick, too quick for Damen to do anything. He wrenched himself violently towards Nicaise, feeling a sharp pain in his shoulder as he was twisted back into submission, but it was no use. The knife was small but sharp, and it sliced along Nicaise's throat like a caress. All Damen could see was blue eyes, wide and young, as blood soaked into the delicate white fabric of his nightshirt.

“No!” He shouted, black spots clouding his vision. “Nicaise—” He was on his knees, the guards' grip still tight as steel on him.

The Regent laid Nicaise's body down gently on the floor, as if he were simply tucking him into bed. He looked with distaste at the knife, dropping it and wiping the blood from his hands on a silk handkerchief before discarding that as well.

“Such a shame,” he said, looking down at Nicaise's still form. “He was such a beautiful boy. But it was nearly time, anyways. Besides, you will be much more valuable leverage,” he said, looking at Damen. His eyes raised to the guards. “Once you have him locked up, come back and clean this up.”

Without another glance at Nicaise, at the horrendous thing he had done, the Regent turned and swept into his room, closing the door tight.

****

The guards pulled him away from Nicaise's body, though he didn't make it easy for them as he struggled and jerked against their grip. He hadn't understood Nicaise, hadn't even liked him, but now he couldn't stop staring at the grotesque color of his blood marring his otherwise pristine white clothing.

He was just a child. A child who would never get to become anything else. He had died believing that the Regent loved him, that the unspeakable things he had done to him were natural. He would never get to experience the truth of love, the mutual trust and safety that came with it. The only relationship that had been true was his strange, almost brotherly bond with Laurent, who had been willing to give up everything to save him.

And Damen had failed them both. He had watched as the life left Nicaise's eyes and had done nothing to stop it.

Laurent. Fire burned through Damen, grief and anger that overtook all of his senses. The injustice of it, of all of this, of Laurent having to play this despicable game, of him being denied his birthright, of him being captured somewhere and Nicaise dying anyways...

It was as if a dam had broken. Unable to contain the raw emotion flooding through him any longer, Damen dropped to one knee and twisted hard in the guards' grip, ignoring the tearing pain in his shoulder as it was pulled further. Surprised, the guard on the left stumbled, letting go of Damen as he tripped into his companion. One arm finally free, Damen reached out and grabbed the sword from one of the guards he had killed earlier, lying on the ground to his side. With a long, sweeping blow, he drove the sword into the back of the second guard's knees, forcing him to let go of Damen as he fell to the ground in agony. Damen stood, his sword raised and ready.

The first guard had recovered himself, and swung at Damen with a strong, two-handed grip as he rose. Again using caution to avoid causing too much noise, Damen stepped quickly aside, dodging the guard's swing, and brought his own sword down in a long slash across the man's chest. The guard fell.

Turning back to the second guard, Damen was shocked to find him back on his feet. It was a truly remarkable show of strength, as he used one hand to prop himself up on the wall behind him. He swung his sword wildly with the other, catching Damen in his surprise. Damen leaned back, not far enough. The tip of the sword met his throat—

— and hit the collar, the blow leaving a long gash in the side of the gold. Damen didn't give the guard another chance. A quick, efficient stroke ended it.

Damen stood there, his chest heaving, for a few long minutes. He waited for the door to open, for the Regent to come investigate the noises, or for more guards to pour up the staircase. None came.

He should leave now, get out of here as fast as possible. Every second he lingered was another chance to be caught, another moment that Laurent might be somewhere cold and dark, suffering or dying. But he couldn't just leave Nicaise here like this, with no one to mourn him. Keeping one eye on the Regent's door, he walked slowly over and sank to his knees beside the boy.

Looking down at him, Damen found himself thinking, irrationally, that he was glad Nicaise hadn't died with pearls in his hair.

He slid his hands underneath Nicaise and lifted him from the cold stone, ignoring the sharp protest from his shoulder. Damen's heart twisted at how light he was, how small, cradled in his arms. Standing, he stepped over the dead guards and into the room he had thought to find Laurent in. He paced over to the large, ornate bed, leaning down to lay Nicaise gently in the middle of it. Damen reached over and closed his eyes, his touch soft. He was unable to bear looking at the extraordinary blue of them any longer, devoid of the life he had seen glittering there such a short time ago.

Damen pulled a silk sheet over Nicaise and, making sure to cover his throat and his blood-drenched clothes, draped it with care around his slight frame. Except for the stillness of his chest and the arm that had fallen lifelessly to the side when Damen had put him down, he could be asleep.

Damen reached into his pocket for the other item he had taken with him from Laurent's tent that morning. He looked down at it, watching the light glint off it. It was strange to think of it in another context, remembering what it had looked like at the inn, dangling low to brush Laurent's shoulder.

He placed the sapphire earring softly in Nicaise's outstretched palm. Damen's dark, rough hand enveloped the child's delicate white one, wrapping Nicaise's small fingers around the earring. He brought Nicaise's closed fist up to rest on his chest, in the best approximation of peace as was possible here in this cold, bitter room.

“He would have wanted you to have it back,” he whispered, and had to swallow around the sudden burn in his throat.

He stood, staring down at Nicaise, thinking of all that had been lost. Not only here, but at Marlas, at Ios, at every battlefield that had soaked in the blood of their hatred. Such reckless devastation, laying waste to their lives. He made a silent promise to Nicaise that, if it was in his ability, he would end it here. That if he regained his throne, he would break this cycle of retribution and hostility. Nicaise would be the last casualty in this bloody struggle for power.

He reached down and tucked in a loose corner of the sheet. Then, with one last wrench of his heart, he turned and walked away, leaving Nicaise behind him, small and alone amongst the red silks.

Chapter Text

Damen's retreat from Toulour was a blur. His thoughts were muffled, as if they were caught in a veil of cotton, disjointed and hazy. He felt as though he was watching himself from afar, his body someone else's. He had found the kitchens, he remembered, and had left from there, dispatching the three sentries he had encountered on the grounds with brutal efficiency. He didn't know how long it had taken him to get out. He couldn't even remember if the kitchens had been empty.

He circled back around to his horse, who was waiting where Damen had left him, nosing through the grass as he grazed. It felt like days had passed since he had left this spot, though he had only been inside a short time. The sky hadn't even begun to lighten, telling him that less than two hours had passed since his arrival at Toulour. Two hours—such a short time for everything to have fallen apart.

He sank to the ground with his back against a tree, allowing himself a few minutes to breathe and think. He didn't have long before the trail of dead men he had left behind him was discovered and scouts were sent out to find him. But he had no idea what to do, where to go next.

I need him alive, the Regent had said. This was Damen's only comfort, his only hope that he still had time. There are so very many places a man could get waylaid...

Where would the Regent have had him taken? And for what purpose? If he wanted Laurent to give himself over for execution, why would he...

A moment of clarity struck him, like a beam of sunlight suddenly piercing its way through a ceiling of stormclouds to illuminate a small section of the ground below. Damen pieced together what he knew of Laurent, what he knew of the Regent. He could kill Laurent, yes, but there would always be a question, a whisper of whether his rule was legitimate. But if Laurent didn't show up at a fair trial for his apparent treason within the deadline the Regent had set, if a child died in his place, the Regent would have the full backing of the Council and the court. The image of Laurent as a selfish, petulant, irresponsible princeling would be complete.

Damen didn't know how the Regent would frame the death of Nicaise, but he had no doubt that he would twist it in a way to make himself look innocent, to use it against Laurent. Damen couldn't shake the feeling of dissonance between the red of Nicaise's blood and the blue of his eyes, imprinted like a ghost upon his mind.

Pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes, Damen forced himself to focus. There had to be something, anything that would hint at the location of Laurent's imprisonment. He just had to think. He thought back to the Regent's words, then back to the nights spent poring over maps with Laurent. He knew this border. Their army was too close to Ravenel for the Regent to risk having him there. His mind scattered, pulling random memories to the surface—the gleam of his slave cuff in the firelight, the way Nikandros had looked when he first saw Damen alive, the ivory glow of Laurent's bare skin, the panicked look in Jord's eyes as he told them Aimeric was missing...

Damen's eyes snapped open. Aimeric. The connections were beginning to form, as Damen pieced it all together. Aimeric, a fourth son trying to prove himself. Aimeric's father, Guion, a powerful member of the Council, and loyal to the Regent. Guion, who had another residence, who was the lord of another stronghold. The other crown jewel of the border, the second sentinel to the first that was Ravenel.

Fortaine.

*****

Damen sped through the dark of the hours before dawn, overlaying a mental image of the maps he and Laurent had memorized onto the hills and landmarks he passed. He did not allow himself to examine the treachery of Aimeric. Every time he tried, murder pulsed through his veins, hot and blinding. There would be time later to deal with him.

The sun rose on a clear, lovely day, the kind that should be spent lazing about with a lover, or enjoying a leisurely ride through the soft grass of the countryside. Sunlight bathed his skin, a caress of warmth, and Damen despised it. How could his surroundings not reflect the horror of what was happening? It felt like mockery, for the world to dare to be beautiful when Nicaise was lying dead behind him and Laurent was somewhere ahead of him, enduring unknown suffering.

Damen tried to use his time to create a plan for getting into Fortaine, but for all his military training, all of his tactical prowess, he had never had a reason to think a single man would be insane enough to attempt to enter it alone, unnoticed. This was no modest country fort like Toulour. Fortaine was a towering, formidable fortress, a citadel of such strength that even his father had not dared to touch it.

He could not use the same ruse he had employed at Toulour. Blood had soaked into his Veretian clothes, there was a gash from a sword in his collar, and he had no reasonable explanation for any of it. Besides, it was likely that Damen would be brought directly before Guion—he wasn't the Regent, and there would be far less fear of dragging him out of bed to address a sweaty, bloody slave who had turned up unexpectedly on his doorstep.

And if he was brought to Guion, Aimeric would be there. Aimeric, who knew exactly who Damen was, and had probably warned the entire fort that wherever Laurent was, Damen would be close behind. His disguise was useless here.

Exhaustion was heavy on Damen's limbs, and he realized that he had gotten very little sleep over the last two days. He longed to close his eyes, to find solace in the void of sleep, to escape from this wretched reality. His shoulder was a deep ache that echoed with every beat of his heart. Only the constant pull of Laurent kept him going.

On through the day he rode, pushing through the crushing weight of his thoughts and his fatigue. As much as he tried not to, his mind returned again and again to the sight of Nicaise, limbs sprawled unnaturally on the stone floor, tiny in death. It would fall to him to tell Laurent what had happened, what Damen had not been able to prevent. Dread was a tight knot in his stomach when he thought of it, but Laurent deserved the truth. Damen owed him that.

The sun had just set when Damen crested a final rise and looked out over the grandeur of Fortaine. Even with the danger he faced, his breath was caught by the elegance of the crenelations cut against the darkening sky, and the spiking towers that seemed tall enough to tear through the clouds above. The fading light cast it in harsh, unforgiving lines, starkly beautiful. Damen could see why his father had never pushed past Delpha—facing Fortaine with an army would be daunting. Facing it alone...it felt impossible.

Damen dismounted, studying the fortress from the shelter of the trees, searching for some weakness, some way in. He couldn't have defended it better himself. Guards were posted along every battlement, the walls soaring high and unyielding. He sought anything, any blemish in the stone that he could use to gain entrance. There was nothing.

He would not give up. He would dig under the walls, tear them apart with his bare hands if that was what it took. He would not leave Laurent within that cold, stone prison.

He was torn from his thoughts by the solid, sharp press of a blade at his throat. A knife, held just so, his death only one quick movement away. He froze, barely daring to breathe. Frustration and anger rose up inside him. He swore at himself, unable to believe that he had been caught unaware. After all this, he couldn't bear finding himself so close to his target only to fail. He closed his eyes, waiting.

His captor seemed to savor his discomfort, shifting the knife slightly and watching Damen react. There was silence, only broken after an uneasy amount of time had passed.

“Well, this certainly is unexpected,” the voice said, and Damen opened his eyes as his blood ran cold. “All I wanted was a moment away from the press of the keep, a little fresh air, and who should I stumble upon but Damianos, the disgraced Crown Prince of Akielos?”

Damen knew that voice, had heard it a thousand different ways. He had heard it tangled with laughter, sharpened with wit, in the close breaths of a lover. It had last fallen upon his ears as he hung from shackles, in a daze from the slaughter of his household, unaware of what he would soon be facing. He wondered if he was hallucinating from the lack of sleep, if he had finally yielded to his exhaustion and the shock of emotions that had battered him without stop.

Because the voice behind him, unbelievably, impossibly, belonged to Jokaste.

*****

“Turn around, slowly,” she said. “If you try to overpower me, I will scream so loudly that the entire fort will hear it.”

Damen swallowed, the knife pressing into this throat, and slowly turned to face her. She adjusted her grip, allowing Damen the movement without the knife ever leaving his neck. Once, a lifetime ago, he would have never believed her capable of delivering a killing blow, not to him. He would have scoffed at the suggestion of it. But now his body remembered the weight of chains, and he knew she would use whatever means necessary to get what she wanted.

She was lovely as ever in the dusty glow of the sunset. Her hair was pinned up in a traditional Akielon style, the curls falling down her back in a cascade of gold. The long column of her neck was elegant and smooth, as if carved out of marble. Damen remembered laying kisses there, as if from another man's life, and then his mind slipped sideways, replacing hers with another throat, the memory of the soft skin there fresh on his lips. He dragged his gaze up to cool, blue eyes that were not Laurent's.

Jokaste raked her eyes down and back up, taking in Damen's disheveled attire. “You're quite the image, Damen,” she said casually. “Can I be honest? You look ridiculous in Veretian clothing. It's like dressing up a bear in laces and silk and calling it an aristocrat.”

Damen clenched his jaw and didn't respond. He had thought the same thing, but it galled him hearing it from Jokaste.

“Typical of you to be covered in blood,” she continued. Her lips pouted in feigned hurt. “And you've gotten rid of your lovely golden collar, after we put such thought into the gift.” Damen had removed the damaged collar and placed it back into his packs when he had left Toulour. “Though I see you've kept one of the cuffs,” she said, her eyes straying down to his wrist. “How interesting.” She reached out to run her finger over it.

Damen jerked his hand away. “Don't,” he growled, “touch it.”

Jokaste's eyes gleamed at the reaction, satisfaction at finally goading Damen into speech. “You seem rather possessive of it,” she said, her voice sharply amused. “Could it be that you've enjoyed your time as a slave? Tell me, what was the Veretian Prince like? They say he is frigid, though, with your charms, I'm sure you had him under you in no time. Perhaps you liked the ice—and to see how much of it you could melt.”

Anger was bitter on his tongue as it blurred his vision. He wasn't aware that he had moved sharply towards her, his hands clenched into fists, until she pressed the knife more forcefully against his throat, just hard enough to draw a tiny trickle of blood.

“Ah, ah,” she scolded. “None of that now. I'd hate to add more blood to your already appalling clothing.”

Damen clenched his fists tighter, then purposefully loosened them, taking a deep breath in to try to calm himself. “What are you doing here?” he said, the words coming out harsh with restrained rage.

“Oh, Damen,” she sighed. “If only your mind were as sharp as your sword, maybe you wouldn't have found yourself in this situation. Kastor sent me as the ambassador to Vere, as Akielos' witness to the execution of the Crown Prince. Though I assume, by your presence here, you know that was simply a ruse. The Prince was never meant to reach Toulour.”

Damen thought of the Regent saying as much, of Nicaise's meaningless death.

“Is he here?” He tried to hide just how much he cared about the answer.

Jokaste's smile told him she knew precisely how much he cared. “The Councilor's son told us that you would stop at nothing to find your Prince. You know who I'm talking about—the one with the big doe eyes and the absurdly long lashes? He must have caused quite a stir in the camp over who got to have him first.”

“Get on with it,” Damen ground out, thinking of Jord, who had fallen for those lashes, who didn't know of Aimeric's treachery yet. It would crush him.

“I got the privilege of meeting the Prince, you know. I can see why you're so taken with him. Dirtiest mouth I've ever heard,” she said with admiration, “but with a face drawn straight from a ballad. Underneath the bruises, he is so very lovely.”

The words hit Damen like a blow, alarm and dread searing through his veins. Which, of course, was exactly what Jokaste had wanted.

“Oh, don't worry, he's still alive,” she said, watching his expression carefully. “Though at this point I'm not sure if that's a mercy or a cruelty.”

“Jokaste,” Damen pleaded, to her obvious delight. “Was I so awful to you? Did I not treat you well? You betrayed me, you enslaved me, and now you seek to cause me as much pain as possible.” A flicker of emotion passed over Jokaste's face, gone too quickly for Damen to recognize it. “I will never understand what I did to you to provoke this, but please—” he pressed his eyes closed for a moment, then opened them to look back at her “—just tell me that Laurent is alright.”

Jokaste looked at him then, her gaze searching, a small furrow between her brows. “Oh,” she said flatly. “I see. I thought he was just another of the usual, a good tumble that you would fall for until the next came along. But that's not true, is it?” She gave a tiny shake of her head as understanding, and something else, flooded her features.

“You're in love with him.”

The words pierced his chest, forcing the breath from his lungs. Nikandros had said the same thing, but Damen had brushed it off. He had been sure at the time that Laurent hated him, and he had not allowed himself to even consider the depths of his feelings, out of self-preservation. But Laurent had let him in, not just inside his body but inside his barriers...

Damen's silence was answer enough.

“Well,” Jokaste said. “That certainly is unexpected.”

He studied her, searching her beautiful face for any trace of regret, anything that would tell him why she had done what she had done.

“I loved you, too,” he said quietly, the words hurting.

That finally cracked Jokaste's taunting, cold pretense. A muscle tensed in her jaw, the knife trembling slightly in her grip. Damen watched as she carefully schooled her features, pulling herself back under control. It was a familiar sight. For a few long moments, there was only the sound of the gentle wind whispering through the leaves of the trees, blowing a few stray curls across Jokaste's forehead.

“No you didn't, Damen,” she said, her voice soft. “You just loved the idea of me.”

Damen held her eyes for as long as he could, then looked away. He wasn't sure if that was true or not, but there was no point in examining it now.

Jokaste continued, as if reading his thoughts. “Regardless, that part of our lives is over now.”

“Yes.” There was a finality to it, a door slamming shut, never to be opened again. “It is.”

She took a long, deep breath, her voice returning to its usual brisk tone. “It's a strange twist of events that has brought us here. Your presence was expected, eventually, but I never thought I would be the one to find you.”

Damen didn't respond.

“It's put me in a rather difficult position. I could simply hand you over to the Councilor. That would gain me favor with the Regent. It would certainly be the easiest thing to do.” She paused, calculating. “Or, I could get you inside, and you could rescue your golden Prince.”

Damen narrowed his eyes at her, wary, his heart thick with distrust. “Why? After all this, why would you help me?”

She removed the knife from his throat with a sigh, looking away from him. Damen didn't dare to move.

“I like to hedge my bets,” Jokaste said finally, turning back to meet his eyes. “If I help you, I want your word that you will let me go free if you triumph over Kastor. No punishments, no grudges. And that goes for your serpent of a sweetheart, too. If he finds his way back to his throne, I want amnesty, and favor.”

It made sense, in a twisted way. Damen remembered Laurent's words in front of the fire at the inn of Nesson-Eloy. You don't understand the way a mind like that thinks, he had said. I do. Damen was beginning to understand, though. If Kastor and the Regent prevailed, her place of power was secure, though she would never be more than the adulterous Queen of a bastard King, the cold woman who had jumped beds when the power had shifted from one son to another. But if Damen and Laurent were somehow successful, she would lose everything. This ensured that, no matter the outcome, she would win. It was a move he was sure Laurent would appreciate.

He raised his eyebrows at her. “And? Is that all?”

She looked up at him, all sharp edges covered in a sweet smile. “And,” she said, “you have to take me with you.”

Chapter Text

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.”

Chapter Text

Aimeric. The name hit Damen like a blow. He had entirely forgotten about the boy in his worry for Laurent.

Jokaste leveled a narrow stare at Laurent. “The boy with the doe eyes? I don't think I'll be able to seduce that one. If I judged him correctly, I'm not exactly his type. How do you propose I get him down here?”

Laurent's smile was grim. “I have no doubt that you'll figure it out. Suggest that Govart finally has me talking. You may want to mention a man named Jord. I'm sure that will pique his interest. Just ensure he comes alone.”

Jokaste considered him for a moment, then turned to Damen. “You'll want to move the guards. The boy may not notice their absence, but I'm fairly certain he will be suspicious if he notices their bodies on the way down.” With that, she spun gracefully on her heel, fabric swirling around her, and left.

Damen looked down at Laurent. Disapproval of this entire mad plan coursed through him. He wanted to take Laurent far away from here. He wanted a physician to properly take care of him. He wanted to sleep for days. He didn't want to spend any more time in this cold, bloody cell, watching Laurent take Aimeric apart piece by piece.

“It's a little cruel bringing Jord into this, don't you think?”

Laurent's stare was icy. “Aimeric brought Jord into his when he decided to fuck him. When he decided that bending over for my captain was worth the chance to give me over to his father. My kindhearted generosity started to disappear when Govart stuck that knife in me. You'll forgive me if I'm not feeling particularly merciful at the moment.”

Damen was quiet for a few minutes. “How did they get you here?” he finally asked.

Laurent leaned back into him, closing his eyes. “I was only a few hours out of camp, on my way to Toulour, when they overtook me. I took out three of them, but there were too many. After they had me bound, Aimeric came trotting out of the woods. It didn't take much to piece it together from there.” He looked back up at Damen. “How did you find me? I thought you would go straight to Toulour.”

Damen couldn't bring himself to tell Laurent that he had gone to Toulour first, and all that had happened there. Not yet.

“After,” he said. “I'll tell you all of it after. It's...a long story.”

It was several minutes after Jokaste left before Laurent could even begin to carry his own weight. Damen held him close, feeling each pain as his own, until Laurent began to test his strength, gripping Damen tightly as he attempted to stand on his own. Finally he was able to use Damen only as support, though his body shook with the effort.

Frustration was plain on his face. “I won't be able to stand for long. Did you see anything I could sit on?”

“My attention was rather focused on other things,” Damen said. “I'll go look, if you can stand on your own for a few minutes.”

Laurent nodded, and Damen braced him against the wall, ensuring that he wouldn't fall, then went to search the other cells. He found a wooden chair in the last cell and dragged it back. Laurent sank gratefully into it with a sigh. Damen dragged Govart's body into the last cell, discarding him unceremoniously on the floor. He could rot there as far as Damen was concerned.

The last thing he did was retrieve the still-unconscious bodies of the guards. He carried each down to the first cell, unlocking it and propping them against the far wall. He locked the cell back up, then returned to Laurent.

In the minutes that Damen had been gone, Laurent had pulled himself together, sitting on the rough, plain chair as if it were the richest throne, as nonchalant and imperious as someone could be after two days of torture. He did nothing to disguise his injuries, displaying them proudly, another weapon targeted at Aimeric, intended to wound.

Damen leaned against the wall, facing Laurent. Laurent looked back at him. The color of his eyes was truly extraordinary; Damen felt as though he were being pierced straight to his bones, as if Laurent could see all of him.

He took a deep, steadying breath. “You lied to me,” he said quietly, the tone only barely betraying how much it had upset him. They had lived enough lies, and Damen had thought they had left them all behind.

Laurent's expression was unreadable. “No, I think you'll find I didn't.”

“I seem to recall you promising me that you wouldn't go to Toulour,” Damen said, his arms coming up to cross in front of him. “What do you call breaking a promise, if not lying?”

Laurent's eyes never left him. “I believe the words I used were 'I promise not to walk unthinkingly into my uncle's trap.' And I didn't. I don't do anything unthinkingly, as you are aware. You would do well to pay better attention to wording in the future.”

Anger rose up in Damen, and he had to spend a few moments wrestling it under control. “You can weave your webs of deception wherever else you want. Do not play those games with me. Half-truths and technicalities are still lies when they're wrapped up in pretty words intended to mislead. Don't—” Damen had to swallow around the sudden emotion in his throat. “When I woke up alone and realized you were gone—where you had gone—” He took a deep breath in, unable to put the fear he had felt into words. “Don't do that to me again.”

Laurent was watching him, and after a moment, he averted his eyes, a rarity that told Damen the truth. There was guilt there, and regret. “I knew you wouldn't have let me go,” Laurent said quietly.

“Of course I wouldn't have let you go!” Damen roared, his voice ringing on the wet stone. “After everything we've done, after the hard-won victories, you would just throw your life away? You would go crawling back to him, head bent like a good, obedient pet?”

Laurent's jaw was tense, his left hand clenched tightly around the arm of the chair. “Don't—you—” He closed his eyes momentarily and swallowed hard, then took several deep breaths, ignoring the painful stretch it must have caused on his injured chest. “I won't let the blood of innocents be spilled on my behalf. I can't—live with that.”

Damen thought of Nicaise's white clothes soaked with red, and closed his eyes, leaning his head back against the cold stone. The heaviness of the memory extinguished his anger. It burned like acid on his tongue, and Damen didn't want to say it out loud, didn't want to watch Laurent's face as he learned of it—

A noise echoed through the cells, the unmistakable sound of steps on the stairs. Damen pushed away from the wall, picking up his dropped sword. With a quick glance at Laurent, who had straightened and regained his calm, impassive pose, he left, moving to hide in the shadow of the next cell.

The footsteps got closer, then stopped. “What is—” he heard Aimeric's voice say, and he moved, coming to stand behind Aimeric, who had paused just inside the open cell door, staring at Laurent. Jokaste had leaned back against the stone wall outside the cell, examining her sleeve carelessly, as if she were at a tedious dinner party.

“Hello, Aimeric,” Laurent said with a welcoming smile. “So nice of you to come to visit me. I was getting lonely down here.”

Aimeric turned, only to find Damen at his back, the point of his sword a strong discouragement against moving further. His eyes grew wide. “You.”

Damen smiled, and it was a threat. “Me.”

“I knew you would come running after him,” Aimeric spat. “No one believed me, that the Akielon King would stop at nothing to track down his whore of a Prince—“

He didn't get to finish the sentence before Damen struck him backhanded, holding back most of the force he truly wanted to use. Aimeric stumbled before regaining his footing. He brought his hand up to his mouth, wiping away the blood that now welled from a split lip.

“I would consider your words carefully,” Laurent said pleasantly. “Damianos is somewhat—displeased at having had to chase me down. He hasn't gotten much sleep, you see. His tolerance level is significantly lower than it normally is.”

Aimeric glared at Damen before turning back to Laurent. “What have you done with Govart?” he asked, his eyes taking in the blood seeping into the stone floor of the cell with disgust.

“Oh, I'm afraid he decided that living was no longer in his best interest. He, too, discovered just how displeased Damianos was.” Seeing Jokaste's raised eyebrows, he smiled and inclined his head, adding, “With considerable help from this lovely lady, of course.” Jokaste went back to her indifferent examination of her dress, appeased.

Aimeric had gone pale. “I see he got in a fair amount of damage before you killed him,” he sneered. “That shoulder looks painful.”

Damen sighed to himself, wishing Aimeric had more of a sense of self-preservation, not recognizing that the calmer and more friendly Laurent got, the more dangerous he was.

“Yes, it was quite unpleasant, I must admit. Would you like to know how deep a knife has to penetrate before a man loses consciousness? I'd be happy to demonstrate for you.”

Aimeric seemed to have gathered enough sense to realize it would be unwise to respond.

“Now, let's get to it, shall we? After all the effort you put into proving you were capable of keeping up, of being a real soldier, I confess I was disappointed to discover that you were the traitor in our midst.”

“You're the traitor,” Aimeric hissed. “Letting an Akielon fuck you into the mattress every night, betraying your country, betraying your family—you disgust me.”

Laurent's eyes were bright, his gaze as sharp as the caress of steel before your throat is cut. Damen was used to meeting those eyes, to withstanding the power that they held. Aimeric was not. His discomfort was thick in the cell as he dropped his gaze.

“But you were more than willing to help my family, weren't you? Tell me, what did my uncle promise you?”

Aimeric was tense. “Nothing. I did it because it was the right thing to do.”

“Aimeric,” Laurent scolded. “Let's dispense with the lies. You fucked my captain, murdered Orlant, and betrayed your Prince. I don't think claiming the moral high ground is quite within your grasp at the moment.”

Damen saw a slight shake in Aimeric's hand where it was clenched into a fist. “Your uncle is ten times the man you are. He deserves to be King. You are just a broken, sad excuse for a prince. You should have died in your brother's place. It would have been better for everyone.”

It took every ounce of control Damen possessed to stop himself from throwing Aimeric to the ground at that moment.

Laurent, however, appeared unfazed. He had tilted his head, appraising, letting Aimeric squirm under the intensity of his gaze. “Ah,” he said, leaning back into the chair. “I see it now. You know, you have some of the qualities that my uncle covets—seven years ago, you would have been just his type.”

Damen watched the words hit Aimeric, watched his body go rigid, the color draining from his face. “You don't know what you're talking about.”

Laurent arched one imperious eyebrow. “Oh, believe me, I know better than anyone. You're pretty now, but you must have been downright captivating as a boy. You would have been, what, twelve? And you've harbored hope this whole time. How—sweet.”

“Shut up,” Aimeric ground out.

“To get royal attention—that must have been truly something, as an extra son with no other value to your family. I bet you would have done anything for him. He does so love when they're blindly devoted. How long did it take him, to get you on your knees? A day? Less?”

Damen was beginning to grasp it, this twisted, complex web that had been woven far beyond the scope that Damen could have imagined. There was a sick, hollow feeling in his stomach, listening to the words Laurent was saying. It was only instinct that had him reach out and grab Aimeric as he made to leap forward at Laurent. Laurent didn't even flinch.

“It's no wonder he made so many trips to Fortaine,” Laurent continued. “For hunting, he always told us. I suppose it isn't completely a lie. Only his prey was not the usual type. And then—eventually, he grew bored, didn't he? Staying for less and less time, his visits becoming few and far between, until one day they stopped entirely. He left you here, alone, wondering what you had done wrong.”

“Stop it.” Aimeric was breathing heavily now, staring daggers at Laurent, who simply smiled wider.

“Of course, the truth is that the only thing you did wrong was dare to age. He has a strict limit, you know. If my calculations are correct, his visits trailed off around the time you turned fourteen. I doubt he even thought of you, after that. He never even brought you to Arles.”

“You don't know anything! He loves me!” Aimeric shouted, the sound ringing off the walls, as he wrenched himself in Damen's grip. Damen nearly let him go from the shock of his outburst.

Laurent stood. Damen knew how difficult it must have been, how much strength Laurent must have gathered just to get on his feet, but it was almost impossible to tell from the outside. A slight tremor in his muscles was the only indication that he was not perfectly healthy.

He slowly walked forward, stopping a foot in front of Aimeric. “You poor, stupid fool. He loves nobody. He used you then, as he uses you now. When you have served your purpose, he will discard you, just like he did all those years ago, when your voice broke and you no longer held any appeal to him.”

Aimeric was crying now, steady tears streaming down his face. His struggle against Damen's hold had ceased, his muscles going limp. “You're wrong,” he sobbed, his voice weak.

“And Jord—was that part of the plan, or was that an improvisation? Did my uncle ask you to fuck him? Or maybe that was your own idea. Maybe you saw him and saw the perfect opportunity. Jord doesn't even know what you've done, yet. I wonder what he will do when he finds out. Care to take a guess? I personally think he's the kind of man who would get down on his knees to beg me for mercy. For you.”

“Stop...”

“It's such a pity,” Laurent continued, turning to circle around Aimeric, a shark waiting for the right moment. “I believe that Jord actually loved you. To think, that he would take someone like you and treat you tenderly—treat you like you were worth something—just for you to throw it back in his face. They say I'm cold, but those are the actions of someone who truly has ice in his veins.”

He had gone in for the kill, and hit true. “You're—you're just jealous—” Aimeric could barely form the sentences around the shaking sobs that wracked his chest.

Laurent stopped, his eyes flashing. “Jealous? What could you have that I would ever want? You are a pathetic, cowardly excuse of a boy, wishing like a child for my uncle to come back to you, cradle you in his arms, and tell you that you're important. Let me explain to you how it will really be. You are disposable to him. You're worth nothing. You have failed him. My uncle is not a forgiving man. What do you think he'll do to your family, when he finds out you've let me go free? I can't imagine it's going to be pleasant. Who do you think he'll take first? One of your brothers? Your mother?”

“Laurent,” Damen said quietly. “That's enough. He's done.”

Laurent looked up to Damen, as if he had forgotten he was there, and then back to Aimeric, who was staring straight ahead, a hollowed-out shell. Tears still trickled slowly down his cheeks, but there was nothing else left in him.

“Yes,” Laurent said with disappointment, “I suppose you're right. I'm growing tired of this anyways. I'm sure Guion will be very concerned about what has become of his son.”

Chapter Text

Jokaste was enlisted once again, this time to deliver Guion, much to her displeasure.

“I think you've confused me with a servant. Or someone who cares about all of this,” she said scornfully when Laurent requested it.

My apologies,” Laurent said. “I was under the impression you wanted us to succeed. I'm sure some questions are going to be raised about how I escaped, and how Damianos found his way inside, if we fail.”

Jokaste narrowed her eyes slightly at the threat.

“I would be happy to go myself, but I'm afraid I'm not quite presentable at the moment. We could send Damen,” he said with amusement. “That would be quite entertaining, I'm sure.”

Jokaste sighed. “Very well,” she said. “Anyone else you'd like me to pick up on the way?” Her sarcasm was biting, but it seemed to only improve Laurent's mood.

“I believe that's all for now, though if you run into any more of Guion's sons, I could always use more leverage.”

Jokaste looked at Damen as if to say I told you that you should have left him tied up. Damen just shrugged, a small, helpless smile tugging up the corners of his mouth. She swept back up the staircase without another word.

Laurent moved to the next cell while Damen bound Aimeric to the wooden chair with what remained of the rope that had held Laurent to the post. He didn't resist, but simply glared at Damen as he tied the last knot around Aimeric's ankle.

“I liked you, you know,” Damen said quietly as he finished. “You were ambitious. You worked hard to prove yourself. I was happy that Jord had found companionship.”

Aimeric's only response was to spit at the ground at Damen's feet. Damen sighed, standing.

“I want you to know that I'll try to stop him from harming you. But it won't be for you. It'll be for him, and for Jord. Jord deserved better, and you are the reason that Laurent was here, bleeding and alone. If it were up to me...” Damen trailed off, taking a deep breath to stop himself from going down that path. “As for the Regent—there's nothing any of us can do to help you there.”

Damen tied a thick strip of fabric between Aimeric's teeth, to stop him from trying to warn off his father. Then, leaving the cell door slightly ajar, he went to join Laurent in the next cell to wait.

Laurent had slid down to rest with his back against the stone, his breath sharp with the effort it must have taken. Standing for so long had taken its toll—his careful control had dropped, and the tremors were back, more defined. Damen knelt down in front of him, examining the cuts on his torso.

“Well?” Laurent asked after a few minutes.

“They're deep, but they should heal easily. You'll have scars.”

Laurent leaned his head back against the wall, looking up at Damen. “We can match,” he said, a strange tone to his voice. He hissed in a breath as Damen's fingers brushed over his lacerated skin.

Damen had no idea how to reply to that. “I should look at your shoulder,” he said instead. There was no white left on his impromptu wrapping.

“Not now,” Laurent said with a slight shake of his head. “There isn't time. I promise you that I will go straight to a physician when we are done here. I'm beginning to suspect I may have a few broken ribs that I hadn't noticed before.”

“That you hadn't noticed.” It was perfectly in character for Laurent to push away physical pain until he was forced to acknowledge it.

“The knife was fairly distracting.”

Damen pushed out an amused breath, then moved over to sit beside him against the wall.

Laurent's eyes had drifted closed. “I'm—very tired.”

Damen reached over to brush a loose strand of sweat-darkened hair off Laurent's cheek. “It's almost over,” he said, hoping that was true. “Then you can rest.”

Laurent looked over at him. “And you,” he said. “Have you slept at all since I—since you left the camp?”

“Sure,” Damen teased gently. “I figured you were probably enjoying yourself and in no hurry to be rescued, so I took a nice long nap between here and Toulour. There was a lovely stream, it lulled me right to sleep.”

Laurent's gaze sharpened on him. “You went to Toulour?”

Damen cursed himself for the slip. “I—yes. I went there first. I didn't know you had been captured on the way.” Seeing the questions form on Laurent's tongue, Damen forestalled him. “It's complicated. I will tell you after you see the physician.”

“But—”

“No. I feel that I've been quite generous allowing you to stay down here this long without medical attention. You see the physician, then I'll tell you.”

Laurent watched him with a piercing gaze. “Alright,” he conceded. Then, after a moment, “You know as well as I do that this was the only way.”

“Yes,” Damen said. “That doesn't mean I have to like it.”

Silence stretched out, comfortable and warm between them in the cold cell. Laurent's eyes were closed as he rested his head back, exposing the long column of his throat. Damen noticed bruises there that looked suspiciously like a handprint. He swallowed down the fury that rose in him. Govart was dead. He couldn't hurt Laurent ever again. He reminded himself of that, over and over, so that he wouldn't be tempted to go and take his vengeance from Aimeric.

“Interesting choice of company, by the way,” Laurent said, interrupting Damen's angry thoughts. Slivers of blue peeked out from the gold of his lashes as he looked out of the corners of his eyes at Damen. “I must say, even I was surprised to see the Lady Jokaste standing behind you. Holding a sword, no less. You are constantly full of surprises.”

“Of my options,” Damen said with a sigh, “somehow, I found that she was the best I had.”

“Nikandros is going to be furious,” Laurent said, with something like glee in his voice.

“Nikandros is not going to find out,” Damen insisted, pinning Laurent with a pointed look.

“Damen.” Laurent spoke as if Damen were being a willful, ignorant child. “Of course he will find out, whether I tell him or not. Though you have no idea how much I would love to be the one to tell him. I imagine one of her stipulations was that we take her with us?”

It was infuriating, Laurent's habit of always knowing something he shouldn't. “Yes,” Damen admitted. “How did you know?”

“It's what I would demand, in her position. She would be the first suspect if you and I were to escape while she just happened to be here and she was left behind. My uncle would see through it in a heartbeat. But if it appeared that she was a political prisoner, coerced to do our bidding, then taken with us...”

Of course. Hide in plain sight.

“What else did you promise her?” Laurent asked.

Damen leaned his head back against the wall, closing his eyes. “Amnesty,” he said reluctantly. “Complete amnesty, from both Akielos and Vere, if we succeed.”

Laurent was silent for so long that Damen opened his eyes to look over at him. Laurent was watching him with an unreadable look on his face.

“What?”

“You would let her go without retribution for what she did to you? Just like that?” Laurent asked, his eyes searching.

“It was her price,” Damen said helplessly. “It was the only way I could get to you. For that...”

Damen thought of all he had been through—the heavy weight of chains on his body as Jokaste walked towards him in the baths, the sharp lance of finding out that she had been in Kastor's bed, the fact that she had known that Kastor was killing their father...his very bones ached at the thought that she would get away with it all, unscathed.

But Laurent was beside him, and he was alive.

“...Yes. For bringing me to you, for saving your life, I would let it go. I would put the past behind me, and ask for no further recompense.”

Laurent looked away, his brow slightly furrowed, as if he were troubled by something. Damen had no idea what was going through his mind. He left him to his thoughts.

“What else?” Laurent asked after a stretch of silence.

“Those were her terms,” Damen said. “Just those.”

Laurent shook his head, the movement careful. “No. There's something else. She risked everything by helping us. There must be something else.”

Damen shrugged. “If there is, I suppose we'll find out soon enough.”

Footsteps on the stairs. Damen was standing in moments, leaning down to lift Laurent gently to his feet.

“They're just through here,” Jokaste's voice echoed across the stone.

Damen waited until he heard the steps stop, the shocked gasp from Guion. “Aimeric! What—” Guion had rushed into the cell, unthinkingly, to untie his son.

Moving with swift, sure steps, Damen strode over to the cell, and with clanging finality, he closed the door, locking them both inside. “Hello, Councilor.”

It was like playing back the same moment from when Aimeric had arrived, though father and son had almost no physical similarities. Guion's eyes widened in shock, then rage. “You.”

“I do have a name,” Damen said, irritated. “And I believe you know what it is.”

“Prince-killer.”

“It's impressively bold, to stand there and call me that from the same cell that you had the Crown Prince locked in, bleeding and beaten to within an inch of his life.”

Laurent chose that moment to appear beside Damen, looking every bit the part with his blood-drenched shirt and spectacular bruises. “How wonderful to see you, Guion. Thank you for inviting me into your lovely home. Though I must say, I have found the hospitality a bit lacking.”

Guion's face was white, though whether it was from anger, fear, or both was difficult to tell.

“Let us out.”

“That depends entirely on you,” Laurent said pleasantly. “I'm sure we can come to some kind of agreement.”

“If you think,” sneered Guion, “that I will be bullied and blackmailed by a treacherous, incendiary child—

Laurent turned to Damen, a thoughtful look on his face, cutting off the end of Guion's sentence. “You know, I've been called a lot of things in my life, but I don't think I've ever been called 'incendiary' before,” he remarked casually. Guion's face turned an unpleasant ruddy color at Laurent's dismissive tone, at having been interrupted in the middle of what surely would have been a very long-winded, impressive tirade.

Damen raised his eyebrows. “Yes, well, he's got a point with that one.”

Laurent put on a show of considering it. “True,” he said after a moment. “I think I rather like it. My apologies,” he said, turning back to Guion. “You were saying?”

Guion was almost spitting with anger. Through gritted teeth, he continued. “You will let us out, or I will have a hundred soldiers on you within minutes.”

“Oh, Guion. Let's not waste time. There were very few people who knew of my imprisonment here, and most of them are currently present. You did not want to risk the questions that it would raise. I wonder how it will be received when the knowledge that you kidnapped and tortured the Crown Prince comes to light. I imagine my uncle is going to be very—disappointed—that you did not do the thing properly. He doesn't like having to clean up after other people's messes.”

The color had drained from Guion's face.

“I imagine it will take quite some time for anyone to come looking for you down here. Or perhaps you told your sons? Your wife? That would be convenient, I must admit. It's so much easier when they come to me. Then the whole family could be reunited, and we could really begin to enjoy ourselves.”

“You will not go near my family,” Guion hissed.

The toying, playful tone in Laurent's voice disappeared, the sudden coldness a nearly physical edge. “Are you under the impression that I will not do whatever it takes? I would put your entire family in these cells and leave you all down here to rot, without hesitation. You can choose that path, if you'd like. Or—you can accept my generosity, and you will be given all the comfort and safety you are used to. It is entirely your choice.”

It was like watching a bull being asked to choose between castration or the butcher's knife—which, of course, was no choice at all. Guion stared hard at Laurent, then looked to Aimeric, still bound and gagged. Turning back, he glared, then pushed a hard breath through his nose.

“What do you want?”

The smile Laurent gave him was not pleasant.

Chapter Text

The negotiations had been simple and brutal. Fortaine, all of its significant troops and supplies, and the loyalty of Guion and his household, in return for Laurent's mercy and protection. Damen found himself thinking that only Laurent would be able to enter a fort as a prisoner, get severely wounded in the process, and somehow come out the other side triumphant.

Damen had unlocked the cell and released Guion and Aimeric. A rider had been dispatched immediately to Ravenel—it was impossible to follow Damen's original plan to return there, not with the extent of Laurent's injuries. It was optimistic to an extreme degree to think that Nikandros had been successful, but Damen had to believe it. If the rider found Ravenel under Akielon control, he was to summon Nikandros and his troops to meet Damen and Laurent at Fortaine. If they had failed to secure Ravenel...well. There would be no need for a messenger then.

It had been a profound relief to leave the claustrophobic, dark cells and return to the bright glow of the hallway above. They had made their way slowly to the set of rooms that Damen had ordered prepared for them. Jokaste had departed to her own, brushing aside their thanks with a dismissive wave of her hand. Laurent had stared after her until she turned a corner and was gone.

Now they found themselves in the warm, comfortable inner chamber of their rooms. Damen guided Laurent over to the table at the center, sitting him down in one of the ornate chairs. He had already summoned the physician—as well as two soldiers to guard their door—now they simply had to wait.

Kneeling down in front of the chair, Damen reached for the strips of fabric he had bound around Laurent's shoulder.

“What's to stop Guion from simply sending soldiers in here to kill us?” He asked as his fingers gently loosened the knot he had tied. “Or from fleeing? Threatening his family is all very well, but we have no means to enforce it.”

Laurent flinched as Damen worked. “He can't do either. It would be extremely unwise for him to kill me—my uncle doesn't want me dead. Not yet, at least, and not with so close a connection to him. I think this was simply a way to keep me away from Toulour until his deadline had passed. And if Guion flees, there isn't a dark corner, in this country or any other, that would keep him safe. My uncle doesn't leave loose ends.”

Trusting their lives to Guion and Jokaste made Damen feel as though he had been handed a wasp's nest to use as a pillow, but they didn't have any other choice. He wondered briefly at the strange events that had brought them here, that two of their most powerful enemies were now their allies.

Layer after layer of stiff fabric was slowly peeled back, until finally there was only one layer left. Damen looked up to warn Laurent about the pain—the fabric was stuck to the wound—but found that he could read quite plainly on Laurent's face that he was well aware of that fact, and would not thank Damen to remind him of it. Damen began, removing the stained strip as gently as he could. Laurent's hands were clenched tight against the arms of the chair, but he suppressed any other signs of pain.

The sleeve of Laurent's shirt was torn at the shoulder where the knife had entered. Instead of trying to maneuver Laurent's arm through it, Damen simply ripped the fabric further, until the sleeve was detached entirely from the rest of the garment. He slid it carefully down Laurent's arm, pulling it off and tossing it to the side.

Laurent was watching him, amused. “What a convenient excuse for you to rip the clothes from my body,” he commented lazily.

Damen looked up at him as he removed the rest of the ruined shirt. “I don't need an excuse,” he replied, holding Laurent's gaze. He enjoyed the reaction that earned, the flush that crept over Laurent's cheeks. “Plus, it was only fair that at least one piece of your clothing met that fate. All those damned laces—it was bound to happen eventually.”

Damen stood, moving around the table to the pitcher of water and the soft cloth that was there, next to the platter of fruits and cheeses that had been brought for them. He soaked the cloth, then came back to Laurent. With only the faintest pressure, he began to clean the blood from around the wound, trying to discern the extent of the damage. He saw with relief that it seemed to have been a fairly clean entry and exit, though there was no telling what the internal damage had been.

He moved to the rest of Laurent's cuts, cleaning them as well as he could, but the cloth was already stained red. A true bath would be required to remove the majority of blood and sweat.

“Are you hungry?” Damen asked when he was done, realizing that it was entirely possible they had not fed Laurent since his capture.

Laurent looked over at the food, and Damen could see that he had guessed right. He slid the platter over, but when Laurent went to try to reach for it, Damen rested his hand on Laurent's forearm, stopping him. Laurent looked at him questioningly.

“Let me,” Damen said. “You should rest your arms.” He sat in the second chair, close to Laurent, and, picking up a grape, brought it to Laurent's mouth. His mind skipped, bringing him back to the memory of another night at a crowded inn, a piece of bread instead of a grape, the recklessness with which Damen had offered it to Laurent.

It was clear that Laurent was remembering, too. They had come a long way since then, and Damen was no longer a slave, but a king. The difference was thick between them, as Laurent leaned forward slightly, his lips brushing Damen's fingertips as he ate the grape. Damen didn't look away as he reached over to the platter to pick up a piece of cheese, bringing it up to Laurent in the same slow, deliberate movement. He could feel the heat of Laurent's breath on his fingers.

They continued like that, Damen feeding Laurent pieces of fruit, cheese, and bread. Neither of them said anything, but a thousand silent words hung in the space between them. The relief of finding Laurent alive was overwhelming. Damen couldn't look away from him now that he was safe. Even with his hair tangled, his skin marred by bruises and blood, he was beautiful.

The moment was interrupted by the arrival of the physician. The tension was broken, and Damen pulled back, standing to allow the physician to take his place. His name was Gaspard, he told them as he arranged his supplies on the table and began to examine Laurent.

Damen knew he was hovering, but he didn't care, watching closely as Gaspard inspected the wound on Laurent's shoulder. Laurent clenched his jaw as Gaspard lifted his arm, moving it gently in different directions, assessing the damage. Gaspard cleaned it, stitched the wound closed, and treated it with a thick salve before wrapping it much more professionally than Damen had. He moved on to Laurent's other injuries, applying the same salve and bandaging them.

“Well, it could have been much worse,” Gaspard said when he was done. “That shoulder wound will take a while to heal completely, but nothing vital was severed. You will regain the full use of your arm. It will require new wrappings twice a day. As for the rest, the bandages should be able to be removed in about a week, if they're well taken care of. Use the salve generously and replace the bandages every night before bed. You have several bruised ribs, but they aren't broken. They will feel like they are, for a few days, but they will heal on their own.” He placed a large container of the salve on the table, along with a pile of spare wrappings. He looked at Damen. “Be sure to summon me if he becomes feverish or the injuries don't seem to be healing.”

Damen nodded, opening his mouth to thank Gaspard and send him on his way.

“If you don't mind, could you look at his shoulder as well?” Laurent asked. When he caught Damen staring, he raised his eyebrows. “What? Did you think I wouldn't notice that you were favoring it?”

Damen was a little stunned that Laurent had noticed anything through the fog of pain and exhaustion that must have been swirling around his mind, let alone an injury that Damen himself had forgotten about in the midst of more pressing issues. Then again, he wasn't sure why he was surprised. This was Laurent, after all.

“Which one is it?” Gaspard asked, moving over to Damen.

“The right,” answered Damen grudgingly.

Gaspard began his inspection, pressing around the joint with impersonal fingers. He asked Damen to raise and lower his arm, which Damen was able to do with nearly his full range of motion, though he winced as pain shot through the shoulder.

“How did the injury occur?” Gaspard asked, feeling his way around the bone and muscle.

Damen hesitated, looking at Laurent. “It was pulled behind me sharply, and then I twisted—with a fair amount of force—out of the grip of the soldier who was holding it.”

One pale, raised eyebrow was the only reaction to that. It was a promise that Damen would be elaborating on that story sooner rather than later.

“It's not dislocated or broken. It looks to be a moderate sprain of the tendon. It is, however, quite swollen.”

“That's just how his arm looks all the time,” muttered Laurent. Damen glared over Gaspard's shoulder.

Gaspard either didn't hear or pretended not to. “The swelling should go down within a day or two. Treat it with ice until the swelling is gone, and then alternate between ice and heat. I'm afraid only time will heal that one. Try not to wrestle away from any more soldiers for a few days and you should be good as new.”

“Thank you,” Damen said, with true gratitude for the good care Gaspard had given Laurent. The confirmation that there would be no permanent damage soothed the last of his lingering worries. Laurent echoed his thanks, and, with a nod of acknowledgment, Gaspard left.

“What are the chances you'll let me skip the salve? It stung.” Laurent took in Damen's expression, then sighed. “That's what I thought.”

“How do you feel?”

“Never better.”

Damen shook his head. “Has anyone ever told you you're a menace?”

“No. I'm sure many people have thought it, but none of them were bold enough to tell me to my face. Only you.”

“Tell me the truth this time. What do you need? Are you tired?”

“Yes,” Laurent admitted. “I can't remember a time when I was more tired. But I need to bathe. That's what I want more than anything right now.”

Damen went to the hallway and waved over one of the guards who had been stationed outside their door, who told him where to find the baths. Luckily, they were nearby. Damen noticed a passing servant and asked him to make sure they would be the only ones there, then went back to retrieve Laurent.

*****

Laurent was still weak on his feet, but the food and Gaspard's care seemed to have lent him some strength. He required very little help from Damen to walk to the baths. They entered, their footsteps echoing off the stone. There were servants present, but no one else. Damen dismissed them with another order to allow no one else in. Their gazes kept flickering to Laurent, clearly curious about the state he was in, but they kept their silence as they left.

Laurent looked over at him. “It's been quite some time since we were alone in the baths,” he said with a private smile.

Damen crossed his arms. “Is that a threat? I could leave.”

“Unfortunately, I'm fairly certain I need your assistance. I promise I won't punish you for it. Will you attend me?”

It wasn't an order this time, but a request. Damen knew it was not easy for Laurent to ask for help. He walked over. It would be considerably less work to remove Laurent's clothing than usual, having only the pants left. Even his boots had been lost at some point.

“You could just skip the laces and rip those off as well.”

Damen ignored Laurent, who seemed to be in a devilish mood. He wondered if Laurent was feeling slightly delirious from the pain and lack of sleep. “You'll have to be careful not to get the bandages wet,” he said instead, untying laces with deft fingers.

Damen pulled the pants down and off, leaving Laurent bare before him. The bruises continued down his legs, though there were fewer of them than on his upper body, and no cuts.

Damen stood, removing what was left of his own shirt and the rest of his Veretian clothing. It felt good to be rid of its restriction after two long days of riding. He was looking forward to sloughing off the dirt of the journey, the sweat and blood that had accumulated on his skin.

Wading into the hot water was a feeling of pure pleasure against his aching, tired body. He found a ledge that would allow Laurent to avoid getting most of his bandages wet and guided him to it, settling him back against the warm stone. Laurent sighed as the heat seeped away some of the soreness from his muscles.

Giving Laurent a moment to rest, Damen went about with the mundane task of washing himself. He scrubbed at his skin, removing layers of dirt and sweat and—in one case—a dried patch of blood that was not his. He didn't stop to examine whose it might be.

He took a pitcher and poured a generous amount of water over his head, combing through his hair to loosen the knots that had caught in it, tangled by wind and exertion. Damen caught himself wanting to lie back in the water, to simply drift off to sleep here, warm and clean, with Laurent safe beside him. He shook his head, trying to shake off the fatigue, scattering water droplets from the ends of his hair.

Opening his eyes, he looked over to find that Laurent was watching him. “Enjoying the view?” Damen asked, drifting closer.

“Yes,” Laurent said simply. He did not look away from Damen.

Damen couldn't help but smile at that, a pulse of joy thrumming through him. It was as if, having felt nothing but worry and fear and grief for the last two days, there was room only for happiness in its absence. They hadn't spoken of what had happened between them the night before Laurent had left, but it was present now, hovering amidst the steam and stone.

“'Your ego need not be worried'?” Damen quoted.

Laurent's laugh was soft as he rested his head back against the stone, closing his eyes briefly. “I was rather hoping you wouldn't remember that. Would you hold it against me? I was delirious.”

“So you didn't mean it?” Damen's attempt at indifference was not as successful as he had hoped it would be.

Laurent looked at Damen, his gaze lidded. He considered Damen for a long moment before speaking.

“I meant it.”

Damen's heart felt like it had permanently relocated to his throat.

The baths were fully stocked, oils and soaps abundant on the ledges around the water. Damen reached over to grab a cloth, immersing it in the water, unstoppering a bottle of soap and bringing it to a lather. Keeping his touch light, Damen began to wash the evidence of the last two days away from Laurent's skin.

He began with Laurent's injured arm, the cloth turning slightly pink as the rest of the blood was washed away. He was careful and methodical. After a moment, Laurent spoke.

“I saw the physician, as you wanted. Now, are you going to hold up your end of the bargain and tell me what happened at Toulour?”

A knot of dread formed in Damen's stomach, the cloth coming to a rest on Laurent's chest as Damen stilled. It was time, though—he had stalled long enough. If he had to say it out loud, it was right that it was just between them, in this warm, intimate space.

“I—” he started, then paused, trying to figure out where to start. His tongue felt too big, the formation of words nearly impossible. He swallowed, exploring and discarding several beginnings, before taking a steadying breath and meeting Laurent's piercing blue eyes.

“Nicaise...Nicaise is dead, Laurent.”

He felt rather than saw the impact of his words on Laurent, his body tensing underneath Damen's hands. Laurent stared at him, then blinked several times in a row, his breaths coming slightly faster. He was silent for a long time. Finally, he swallowed, hard.

“Tell me.”

So Damen did.

He told Laurent of waking alone in the tent, of Jord rushing up to tell them that Aimeric was missing. He told him of his race across the hills and his arrival at Toulour, and how he got in using the slave collar. Laurent listened, his gaze fierce, without interruption.

It was difficult to relive his encounter with the Regent, what Nicaise had said that had caused his death. Laurent spoke for the first time since Damen had begun.

“Were those his exact words? 'You have to tell him that his father and his brother—' Was that all?”

“Yes.”

Laurent nodded, his expression troubled, then gestured for Damen to continue.

“Once I realized what was happening—I couldn't—their hold was so tight on me, I couldn't get to him in time—he wouldn't have died if I hadn't gone there—” Damen's throat closed over the words, his guilt bubbling to the surface, tight in his chest. He bowed his head, unable to meet Laurent's gaze. “I'm sorry, Laurent. I failed you. I should have—”

Cool fingers caressed his cheek before curling under his jaw, forcing him to look up. Laurent's face was etched with anger, with grief, but he looked at Damen with gentleness. “You have nothing to apologize for. You couldn't have stopped it. My uncle was always going to kill him, to get to me. His blood is on my hands. I left him—I should have brought him with us, should have found a way to get him out—it was me who failed him.” He trailed off, closing his eyes and clenching his jaw.

Damen reached out, brushing his thumb over the furrow in Laurent's brow, smoothing it out, before threading his hand into Laurent's hair. Laurent opened his eyes to look at Damen, a maelstrom of emotions in them.

“You were ready to die for him,” Damen said quietly. “You were ready to give up everything that you've fought for, everything that matters, to save his life.” He made sure Laurent was hearing him, truly hearing him. “You didn't fail him. He loved you. In the end, that's what he chose, over the Regent, over his own safety. He knew what he was doing. He died knowing that you loved him, too.”

Laurent's breaths were shallow as he absorbed the words. Damen allowed him a few moments to gather himself. “I gave him back the sapphire earring,” he finally said. “I hope you don't mind. I couldn't leave him alone on that stone floor, so I—I carried him to the bed and tucked the sapphire earring into his hand. It's not much, not a proper burial, but—I couldn't leave him there like that, with no one and nothing.”

Laurent leaned forward, sliding his hand around to the back of Damen's neck, and leaned his forehead against Damen's. The words, when they came, would have been too quiet to hear if they hadn't been so close. “Thank you,” Laurent breathed, and then he was kissing Damen, soft and sweet.

It was solace, and safety, and the heavy weight of the sorrow they shared. For long minutes they lost themselves in it, and found themselves too. It wasn't the heated, desperate kisses that had been between them the first night. It was simply closeness, and the comfort of touch. Damen felt the burden he had been carrying with him from Toulour, and he felt Laurent take it from him, and together they let it go.

Laurent made a tiny sound of pain against his lips, and Damen pulled away, concerned. Laurent was leaning back against the stone with a wry smile.

“I tried to lift my other arm. I forgot.”

“You forgot that you got stabbed?” Damen said dryly.

“Yes, well—you are very—distracting.”

Shaking his head, Damen resumed washing Laurent, as efficient as possible while keeping the water away from the bandages. Laurent closed his eyes when Damen moved to his hair, running his fingers gently through the nest of tangles until it was a smooth cascade of gold once more. His ministrations moved lower and, under normal circumstances, it would have been impossible to deny the lure of their bodies so close together. Damen pushed it to the side. They had time, later, to enjoy each other.

Damen helped Laurent out of the water and dried him with a large, soft towel before drying himself off with another. Now that he was clean, the bruises on Laurent's skin were even more prominent, offsetting the creams and golds that made up his coloring, a sharp, disquieting contrast. Laurent, however, didn't seem to care. He wrapped the towel around himself, his eyelids heavy.

“Better?” Damen asked.

“Much.”

“Good,” Damen replied, wrapping his own towel around his waist. “Let's get some rest.”

Chapter Text

The fire was burning steady in the hearth when they returned to their rooms. Damen had paused outside the door to tell the two guards not to disturb them in the morning, that Laurent needed rest, and he would send for them if they needed anything. If the guards felt strange taking orders from an Akielon dressed only in a slave cuff and a towel, they didn't show it, nodding their understanding.

Damen entered the rooms, closing the door behind him. The only light was from the fire, lending the room a cozy, rich glow, just enough to see by. Laurent had seated himself back at the center table, his eyes closed as he leaned imperceptibly towards the warmth from the hearth.

Damen paused, taking a moment to fully appreciate that Laurent was here, injured but alive. The firelight cast him in gold, softening the harsh colors of his bruises. His hair was still wet, dripping down his neck, a few stray pieces clinging to his temple. Shadows pooled in the sharp line of his cheekbone, the hollow of his throat, the dips of his collarbones. Damen was struck by his beauty, by the grace with which he held his body, even through his exhaustion and injuries.

His mind supplied him with a memory of Laurent lit by another fire, staring at him from across it as he sat down with his soldiers for the first time, following Damen's advice. It hadn't been long ago, but so much had happened since that night. He had been unable to look away then, too.

“Are you just going to stand there and stare all night?” Laurent said without opening his eyes. “I can hear you thinking all the way across the room.”

The truth was that Damen would be perfectly content to spend the rest of his life doing nothing but looking at Laurent.

He walked forward, coming to stand behind Laurent's chair. He reached down to rest his hand lightly on Laurent's left shoulder. “What are you thinking about?”

Laurent's eyes opened, looking at the fire, and he reached up with his left hand to thread his fingers through Damen's. The tender gesture stole Damen's breath for a moment. This side of Laurent was still new, and he didn't know how fragile it was. It was unfathomable that he got to bear witness to it, when the rest of the world was shut out, kept at a distance by Laurent's sharp edges.

“I'm thinking about how good it's going to feel to sleep in a bed tonight,” Laurent replied after a moment. “And I'm thinking about Nicaise. And I'm thinking about you.”

He pulled his hand away, to Damen's disappointment, only to place it on the arm of the chair, leveraging himself up to stand. He turned to face Damen, and Damen couldn't stop himself from reaching out and taking his hand again. Laurent searched his face for a moment, then lowered his eyes, looking down at their interlocked fingers.

“When I—in the beginning, I thought I could withstand it,” he said. “I thought I could be strong, and ignore the pain. But then, after those countless hours, when the knife went in—I couldn't endure it anymore. For the first time in seven years, I let myself think that someone would come, that someone would find me.” He swallowed, hard.

“And then I very carefully pushed that idea away. It was—difficult. I think there must be part of all of us that remains from childhood, that believes in stories and heroes, that refuses to die easily. But the truth is—” He broke off, lost in his thoughts. “The truth is that there has been nobody. Not since Auguste died.”

Damen was quiet, a sharp pang lancing through him. Laurent laughed, a small, choked sound. “For a moment, in the haze of the pain, I thought that maybe Auguste would come. That somehow he could find a way to free me, or if he couldn't do that, to take me with him.”

Damen's chest was tight, so many emotions overflowing inside him that it was difficult for him to even name them. He thought of Laurent, alone and in pain, wishing like a boy for his big brother to come save him, and then forcing himself to let that hope go. His last words were a shard in Damen's heart, that Laurent had been so far gone he had begun to wish he could join Auguste in death. Anger and sorrow eddied like poison in his blood at the thought.

“There has been nobody I could trust since Auguste.” Laurent moved his gaze up purposefully, meeting Damen's eyes. “Until you.”

Words crowded on Damen's tongue. He wanted to say something, say anything, but he found that he had forgotten how to speak. Laurent continued.

“I was used to doing things on my own, confiding in nobody else, and then you came along with your implacable honor and your inability to not say exactly what you are thinking and that ridiculous dimple when you smile...” He trailed off. Even in the firelight, Damen could see the flush that spread across Laurent's cheeks.

Happiness was a warm glow, burning through the rest of Damen's warring emotions, a ray of light through the fog. He felt as he hadn't since he was thirteen, as if this was the first time someone had admitted affection for him, and he suddenly wanted to bury his face in his hands and grin like a fool until his heart started beating normally again. He forced the feeling down, only the curling corners of his mouth giving him away.

“I should never have told you that,” Laurent said flatly, watching all of that play out on his face. “You're going to use it against me.”

Damen's smile grew. “Oh, undoubtedly.”

Laurent was fighting his own smile. For a few minutes, they just stood there like that, before Laurent grew serious again. He shook his head. “I had dismissed the thought that anyone would come. I had accepted that it was just me, that I had no more tricks, that I couldn't talk my way out this time. And then, somehow, you were there. For a long time I didn't understand. I thought I was hallucinating, or dying.”

Laurent untangled their hands and reached out, brushing his fingers across Damen's collarbone, as though to make sure he was real. Damen felt each touch like sparks across his skin. Laurent rested his palm flat against Damen's chest, his fingertips just below the hollow of Damen's throat. Damen reached up to cover Laurent's hand with his own.

“You came.” Laurent finally said. His tone suggested that it was an impossibility, an outcome he had never planned for.

Damen lifted his other hand, bringing it up to cradle Laurent's cheek, his fingertips sliding into the damp hair above Laurent's ear. His throat was tight, making it difficult to speak.

“Of course I came. I would never leave you to face your uncle—or anyone else who wanted to harm you—alone.” He leaned down, his lips brushing against Laurent's, barely a kiss. He paused like that, the breath caught between them, then kissed Laurent in earnest. He broke away, looking Laurent straight in the eye. “There is nowhere they could take you that I wouldn't follow. They would have to kill me to stop me. As long as you want me by your side, that's where I'll be.”

The flush spread, and Laurent looked down. “I—When you talk like that, I can't—You can't promise that.”

“I believe I just did.”

Laurent looked back up at him. “You are a king, Damianos. We march south, to retake your throne. Your promise belongs to your kingdom. Not to me.”

Damen brushed his thumb lazily across Laurent's cheekbone. “And why would one cancel out the other?” he asked quietly, the idea taking root deep inside him as he said it. It was an impossible idea, a crazy, inconceivable dream. And yet...

Into the close space between them, he spoke it into being. “Can they not be the same promise?”

He saw the words strike Laurent, watched them sink deep into his skin. Laurent stared wide-eyed at Damen as he held himself completely still. Damen forced himself to stay silent as he let Laurent absorb what he had said. He was sure that Laurent could feel his heart beating furiously against his ribs, the anticipation unbearable as he waited for Laurent's response.

Laurent took several slow breaths before he spoke. His words were deliberate and precise when they came, each one carefully chosen. “The world is full of impossibilities. I have seen a prince become a slave, a slave become a king. After that, who are we to tell the future its own limitations?”

And in between Laurent's circular, convoluted words, Damen heard what he was really saying: Yes.

Damen felt as though there was sunlight bathing his skin, piercing through him, flooding him with warmth as Laurent slid his arm around Damen's neck and pulled him down to him. Their lips met, and this time an edge of desperation crept in.

He remembered what he had told Laurent about the view from the cliffs of Ios a few nights ago, during the dinner that had joined their two armies. It's like nothing else I've seen elsewhere, to stand there and glimpse such vast endlessness in two different forms, meeting before your eyes. Somehow, that was what this kiss felt like, the sky and the sea crashing into one another—and what was more, he thought with a dizzy joy, it felt like being home.

He wanted nothing more than to pull Laurent tight against him, to eliminate every inch of the space between them, but he was sharply aware of Laurent's injuries. He settled for threading both of his hands into Laurent's hair, tilting Laurent's head up so that he could deepen the kiss. Laurent's lips were parted against Damen's, and he gave a soft gasp as Damen's grip in his hair tightened.

The sound of it made heat unfurl deep in Damen's stomach, a pull that he couldn't deny. He slid a hand gently down Laurent's back, which, having been against the wall, had escaped most of the brutality in the cell. He felt Laurent shiver from the light touch, their kisses all open-mouthed and heated. Laurent tightened his arm around Damen's neck, shifting up, pressing himself against Damen...

With a low growl of desire and frustration, Damen pulled himself away. He retreated, slowly, until his back hit one of the posts of the bed. He put his palms against the wood, concentrating on the rough grain of it beneath his fingers, reining himself in. Laurent was watching him from several paces away, his face unreadable.

“We can't do this. You're hurt, and tired, and...” Damen couldn't remember the other reasons, losing his train of thought as Laurent slowly closed the distance Damen had put between them.

“My shoulder is bandaged quite well,” Laurent said, with, infuriatingly, no hint of the unsteadiness that Damen was feeling. He took another step closer. “And the salve has eased much of the pain. Unless you're planning on manhandling me, I can't imagine we could do too much damage.”

“You haven't slept in two days—neither of us has slept in two days—”

“Then another hour won't make much of a difference, will it?”

Laurent was only a pace away now. Damen suddenly understood how a deer might feel as a panther stalked slowly towards it, waiting for its moment to strike—although the deer probably wouldn't be longing for the panther to leap. Damen tightened his grip on the wood to keep himself from reaching out, his resolve wavering.

Laurent took one last step in, cornering Damen against the post, his fingertips skimming above the edge of the towel around Damen's hips.

“Stop it,” Damen groaned. “You're going to get me in trouble with Gaspard. I'm fairly certain he would be displeased if you tore open your wounds because I couldn't keep my hands to myself for one night.”

Laurent's smile was merciless. “Imagine if people knew—the Akielon King, first to ride into battle, brave and fearless, cowed into obedience by the wrath of a physician.”

Laurent ran his fingers through Damen's curls, then leaned in to kiss beneath Damen's jawline. Damen's eyes fluttered closed, adrift in the sensation, trying desperately to find the strength to resist. Then he felt a light graze of teeth against his neck, and his will crumbled entirely.

He wrapped an arm around Laurent's waist and pulled him closer, careful not to jostle his injured shoulder or his aching ribs, but not quite as gentle as he had been before. He felt a hot breath against his skin as the movement forced the air from Laurent's lungs. Damen's head fell helplessly back against the bedpost, allowing Laurent full access to his neck as he continued his exploration there. It wasn't a place many of his past lovers had focused their attentions, and Damen found himself lost to it. Laurent was thorough, and the thought of wearing the marks from it for everyone to see was intoxicating.

All thoughts of resistance were drowned by Damen's desire, and he dipped his head to catch Laurent's mouth with his. It was hungry and all-consuming, and he could feel Laurent's breath on his lips, quick and slightly unsteady now. Laurent's grip in his hair tightened, and Damen groaned low against his mouth.

Laurent moved back slightly, and Damen followed, unwilling to break their kiss. Their breaths were a tangle between them as Laurent guided them both to the bed. He removed his hand from Damen's hair, sliding it down to his shoulder. He gave a light shove, and Damen found himself sitting on the bed, with Laurent still standing above him. He took a moment to get his breathing under control.

“Promise me I won't cause you pain.” The words came out shaky, but adamant. Damen had to know. Hurting Laurent was not an option, no matter how badly Damen wanted him, no matter how badly Laurent seemed to want him back.

Laurent's mouth turned up at the corners. “Damen, I'm fine. I promise,” he said, his voice slightly exasperated, with an edge of amusement. “It wasn't a very big knife.”

“All knives are big when they're buried in your shoulder,” Damen replied flatly.

Laurent arched an eyebrow. “Fair enough,” he admitted. “But my point still stands. You won't hurt me. I want this, Damen. I thought I would never get to have it again.” His eyes were dark. “Please.”

Those words seared through Damen's veins, reigniting the fire inside him, and he reached over to pull Laurent to him. It forced Laurent to put his knee on the bed, his hand braced against Damen.

“Don't move your shoulder,” was Damen's only warning, and then he slid his hand up Laurent's unbent leg to the back of his thigh, pulling it towards him. Without missing a beat, Laurent complied, bringing his other knee to rest on the bed on the opposite side of Damen.

The pressure of Laurent on his lap, straddling his hips, was almost too much. They were kissing, Laurent's left arm curled tight around Damen, one of Damen's hands still on his thigh, teasing under the edge of the towel, and the other splayed tight against his lower back. The silk of Laurent's skin was warm against his fingertips, and his hand wandered, moving from Laurent's back to run up his side, avoiding the few bandages there, before drifting back down to the towel that clung loosely around Laurent's hips.

Laurent jerked slightly against him as Damen eased his fingers slightly beneath it, the movement rocking them together for a moment. Damen made a low sound in his throat, chasing the friction. He nipped at Laurent's lower lip, enjoying the feel of Laurent's fingers digging into his back in response. He ran his hand further up the side of Laurent's thigh, pulling the towel looser.

“Damen,” Laurent said against his mouth. “Stop teasing.”

“I thought you enjoyed the teasing,” Damen breathed, his thumb sliding up to Laurent's hipbone.

“Just get rid of the damn towels.”

Damen smiled, capturing his mouth for another long kiss before replying. “I don't have to take orders from you anymore, you know.”

Laurent's smile was wicked. “Yes, but you will anyways.”

A single tug had Laurent's towel falling open, and Damen gathered the soft fabric in his fist, tossing it to the ground. There was something provocative about having Laurent, naked in his lap, while he himself was still covered. His gaze was drawn down, Laurent's desire clear in the hard line of his cock between them.

Their foreheads were so close as to be almost touching. Damen raised his eyes to the crystalline blue of Laurent's. He remembered what Jokaste had said. Perhaps you liked the ice—and to see how much of it you could melt. He would never admit to her how right she had been.

His hand curled around Laurent, silky and hot, his eyes never leaving Laurent's face, relishing the way that Laurent's golden eyelashes fluttered at the contact, his breath warm on Damen's cheek as his lips parted in pleasure. Damen's thumb circled around the tip, light at first, then with more pressure. Laurent arched into it. He was beading beneath Damen's touch, and Damen was lost for a moment in the thought of tasting him, of taking Laurent apart with his mouth. Then he dismissed it. He was too enraptured with being able to see Laurent's every reaction up close, and his heavy weight on top of him.

“You forgot your own towel,” Laurent said, his voice unsteady.

Damen hummed against Laurent's lips as he kissed him, his hand never stilling. “My apologies. I was preoccupied.” He slid his hand down to the base of Laurent's cock, enjoying the hitch it caused in Laurent's breathing.

His other hand went to his own towel, undoing the loose knot that kept it in place. It took some shifting to get it out from under him, a flare of arousal spiking through him as he lifted his hips, the movement pressing him against Laurent. Then the towel was gone, and it was just the two of them, skin against skin.

Laurent settled, his thighs spreading slightly farther apart as he slid down across Damen's hips. Damen sucked in a surprised breath when he felt fingertips caress his length, the touch unexpected, as Laurent's hand was around his neck.

“I told you not to move your arm,” Damen said, his voice coming out wrecked as he looked down to see Laurent take him in hand with his injured arm, his grip tight.

“You told me not to move my shoulder. My wrist is quite unharmed.” He demonstrated, and Damen had to close his eyes at the feel of it, trying and failing to suppress a groan.

“Semantics,” he said, once he could speak again. “It would be too easy to jar your shoulder.” He reached down, gripping Laurent's wrist over the golden cuff, and dragged it gently away. He carefully moved it until it was out of the way, then let go to slide his hand back up to Laurent's hip. “No right arm.”

Laurent looked as though he was going to argue, opening his mouth to speak. Before he could, Damen caught his parted mouth with his own, the kiss deep and heavy, and then he released his hand from around Laurent's cock. Laurent made a sound of protest at the loss, but Damen only let go long enough to wrap his hand around both of them, the feeling of Laurent's cock sliding against his own nearly overwhelming. The soft groan that came from Laurent indicated his agreement.

Damen rolled his wrist, delirious with the heat of it, the pressure, and Laurent's mouth was on his again, claiming him. Damen found a rhythm with his hand, and they both began to rock into it, shifting together in mindless pleasure. Laurent was making sweet, desperate sounds against him, and soon they weren't kissing so much as panting into each other's mouths.

“Wait,” Laurent breathed, his chest rising and falling rapidly. “Wait.”

Damen's hand stilled. “What is it? Are you in pain?”

Laurent laughed, a quiet, airy laugh that eased Damen's worry. “No,” he said. “No, I just—I don't want to come like this.”

“How?” Damen asked, then pressed a kiss to Laurent's jaw. “How do you want it?”

“I want—I want to come with you inside me.”

Damen groaned into his skin as fire seared through his veins. The memory of it—of the tight heat, of pressing deep into Laurent—the thought alone almost undid Damen.

“We can't,” he said reluctantly. “We don't have—”

“On the bedside table,” Laurent interrupted, and Damen looked over to see one of the vials of oil that had been in the baths. He hadn't seen Laurent pick it up as they left.

He buried his face against Laurent's neck to hide the spike of arousal that overtook him. “You planned this.”

“I hoped for it. I wasn't sure you would cooperate.”

Damen looked at him, reaching up to brush a stray lock of golden hair off his forehead. “Are you sure?”

Yes, Damen, I want it, I want you—”

He broke off as Damen kissed him, hard, his hand sliding to the back of Laurent's neck, pulling him close. He kissed Laurent as though they had all the time in the world, as though there was nothing but this, felt as Laurent melted into it. Splaying a hand on Laurent's back to steady him, Damen leaned over to grab the vial, not letting the kiss break for a moment.

Laurent was moving against him, his body seeking its own pleasure, his tongue sliding hotly against Damen's. For a moment Damen couldn't make his fingers work, and he fumbled to unstopper the vial. Then it was open, and oil spilled over his hand, cool and slippery.

Damen traced his finger around Laurent's entrance, and felt as the familiar tension crested within him, then was forced down. Damen gave him time, kissing him slowly until he felt Laurent relax, and then pressed inside.

Laurent gasped, breaking the kiss, his eyes closed and his skin flushed. Damen watched, drunk with the sight of it, as he slowly moved his finger inside. It was dizzying, as it had been the first time, and Damen couldn't quite wrap his head around it, that Laurent was choosing him again, that he wanted this with him, that he had asked for it explicitly.

Damen's body ached to be inside, but Damen reined it in, restraining himself as he pressed a second finger alongside the first. Laurent shuddered against him, his head falling forward, and Damen brought his other hand to his cheek, Laurent's skin burning under the touch. He could feel Laurent opening for him, and he pressed deeper, changing the angle slightly. Laurent arched against him, a helpless sound of pleasure falling from his lips.

He pressed again, in the same place, and watched as Laurent's iron control slipped away in his arms. The heat inside Damen spilled over, a dam overflowing, and he couldn't control it anymore.

“Look at you. You look so good like this,” he was saying, the words coming unbidden, unthinkingly. After a few more moments, he couldn't stand it. “Laurent, I need—I want—”

“Yes,” Laurent said, the word intertwined with his strained breaths. “Do it, Damen, fuck me—”

Damen slid his fingers out, and shifted Laurent forward, lifting him slightly. He took himself in hand and lined himself up, sliding the head of his cock in small circles against Laurent, longing to be inside but not wanting this to end—

Damen.” It was a plea, a command, and Damen could do nothing but obey.

The first slow push fractured Damen's awareness into pieces. The heavy, oiled slide, the sound of Laurent's shattered breaths, the taste of Laurent's skin as he leaned forward to press his lips on Laurent's collarbone. Damen paused, wanting to let Laurent adjust to the feel of him, but Laurent spread his thighs further on either side of Damen, sinking himself down onto Damen's cock. Damen wasn't sure if he could remember how to breathe, and decided he suddenly didn't care about breathing anyways.

Finally, finally, Laurent was fully seated. Damen was consumed by it, and the only tether he had was the burn of the blue eyes locked on his, dark with pleasure. Laurent shifted, driving Damen deeper, and Damen wasn't sure if the moan that fell between them was his or Laurent's.

Laurent began to roll his hips, the movement slow but so, so good. Damen could do nothing but feel it, aware of little else besides the melting ice of Laurent's eyes, the warmth of his breath against Damen's lips, the intensity of being inside him, surrounded by him, claimed by him.

“Are you going to make me do all the work?” A spark of mischief gleamed in Laurent's heavy-lidded gaze, mixing with the desire there in a way that scorched Damen to his core. “I am injured, you know.”

Damen smiled, accepting the challenge. The position did not allow for much more than for Damen to press his hips up, rocking into Laurent, though it certainly had its advantages. Damen could see every minute reaction as he wrapped his arm around Laurent's hips and pulled him closer, simultaneously driving himself deeper.

The tangled sound that Laurent made was lost in the kiss that Damen stole, as their bodies found a rhythm together. The room narrowed until it was only them, the slide of skin against skin, the sound of their shallow breaths, the unimaginable knowledge that this could be his, that Laurent was his

He found that he was saying it out loud, unable to contain it. He watched with reverence as Laurent surrendered to it in his arms, their movements quickening, and it felt like the flames had leapt from the hearth to consume them both. Damen embraced the heat of it, thinking that, if this was to end in fire, he would be content to let them burn.

“Damen,” Laurent was saying, again and again. “Yes, Damen, like that—”

Laurent was normally so restrained that the sound of him asking for it, of him accepting his own pleasure, unraveled Damen completely. It was too much. Damen could feel it build, low in his stomach, and he knew he was close, so close. He reached down to wrap his hand around Laurent, hard and wanting between them, rolling his wrist to the pace of their hips. In the same movement he shifted up, the change in angle driving him deep, burying him to the hilt.

Laurent cried out, his fingers clawing into Damen's back, and then he was coming, hot and wet over Damen's hand. The sight of it, the feel of it, of Laurent letting go, was overwhelming, intoxicating, just as much so as the first time. This time, unlike last, Damen had the privilege of seeing Laurent's face from inches away as his head fell back, his eyes closed and his lips parted around torn breaths. Damen wanted to hold on, to stay in this moment as long as he could, but he couldn't endure it anymore. It was too good, and, strangling his cry of Laurent's name against his neck, Damen let it take him, the sharp flood of pleasure washing over him, heavy and bright, as it carried him away.

Chapter Text

He wasn't sure how long they stayed like that, unmoving except for the rise and fall of their breathing. Damen's head rested on Laurent's uninjured shoulder as he forced his heart back down to its rightful place in his chest. Laurent's fingers combed lightly through his hair, a comforting, tender touch that Damen savored even more for its unexpectedness. Damen trailed tiny kisses lazily along Laurent's skin. His body was heavy after release, his limbs like lead, all that had happened over the last two days catching up to him at last.

Finally he found it within himself to move. Placing his hands on Laurent's back, he shifted, laying Laurent carefully back against the sheets, exceedingly aware of his injuries. He leaned over, grabbing one of the discarded towels from the floor to clean them both.

Laurent watched him lazily as he did so. Damen scanned him for any hint of discomfort, any sign that he was in pain, trying not to make it obvious.

“Damen. You didn't hurt me.” Laurent's voice was languid, Damen's attempt at subtlety not escaping his notice. “I'm fine. I'm more than fine, I feel—” He stopped.

Damen raised his eyebrows, tossing the towel back to the ground.

Laurent shook his head, a small smile twisting his mouth. “I've said plenty tonight. I'll let your ego rest for a while.”

Damen sprawled himself out next to Laurent, propping himself on an elbow, looking down at Laurent with delight and affection. “No, please, continue. I'm quite interested in hearing what you were going to say.”

Laurent pushed out an amused breath. “You know perfectly well what I was going to say.”

“Perhaps. But it would sound so much better coming from you.”

Blue eyes drifted over him. “You want to hear me say I liked it? I did. You—I didn't know it could be like this. Is it always so—” He trailed off.

“No,” Damen replied to the unfinished question. “No, it's not like this with anyone else.”

Laurent opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again, blinking. Damen felt a little jolt of satisfaction at having rendered him speechless, a truly rare occurrence.

Damen saved him from having to find words by leaning down to press a soft kiss against his mouth, then his cheek, then his temple, gentle over the bruises. He wished he could heal them all with his lips alone—that would truly be time well-spent, an excuse to linger over every inch of Laurent's skin.

“Any other irresponsible acts you'd like to drag me into before you'll agree to sleep?” He tried to sound stern, but his smile refused to fade, ruining the effect.

“Several,” Laurent replied, “but I suspect I've used up my powers of persuasion for the night.”

“You have,” Damen replied, though he wasn't entirely certain that, if Laurent truly put his mind to it, he couldn't get Damen to do whatever he wanted.

Damen shifted to arrange the silks over them, then laid himself out on his side next to Laurent, the bed so comfortable that it threatened to drag him into sleep within moments. He fought it, looking over at Laurent, who had turned his head to watch Damen. Damen recognized the look—it meant that Laurent was searching for something, rearranging his understanding to accommodate the information in front of him.

“Thank you,” Laurent whispered finally, “for finding me.”

He didn't think Laurent was speaking only of his rescue from the cell.

Damen felt it then, a deep crack within him. When he was a boy, he had watched from his balcony in Ios as, with a sound that had echoed in his very bones, a vast sheet of rock had fractured suddenly from the cliffside to tumble into the water below. That's what this felt like, as if it were happening within his chest, profound and immutable. It stole the breath from his lungs.

“It's easy to get lost when you're alone,” he replied, once he could speak evenly. He reached down, taking Laurent's left hand, and brought it up to press a kiss against his palm, a gesture that said what he could not say out loud. Maybe you found me, too.

The moment draped over them, spun like gold across the silk sheets. Time was meaningless, minutes feeling like hours as they looked at each other. Damen watched through heavy lids as exhaustion took Laurent, the blue slowly hidden by golden lashes as his eyes fell closed. Damen fought off the heaviness in his own limbs as long as he could, until, with their fingers still interwoven, he finally drifted into the waiting, welcoming arms of sleep.

*****

He woke to the rich radiance of mid-morning sun drenching the sheets. He opened his eyes and then quickly closed them again, disoriented by the brightness. Squinting against the light, awareness began to return, and all at once he remembered where he was and who was beside him. Turning his head, he looked over at Laurent, still asleep, luminous in the sunshine.

The bruises were even worse in daylight. Purple and blue marred Laurent's fair skin, like wine spilled across a tablecloth, a terrible waste of perfection. His cuts were covered with bandages, but Damen remembered the angry look of them, long and jagged. Helplessness swept over Damen—he longed to fix it, and knew he could do nothing. Inaction was not an option that he accepted easily.

He reached over to move a strand of hair from Laurent's forehead, then rested his hand against his cheek. Laurent turned his head into the touch without waking, making a small noise of contentment in his sleep. The sound of it burrowed deep down into Damen's chest.

He simply looked for a long time, grateful that Laurent was getting the rest he desperately needed. The sun had shifted a fair distance across the window by the time Laurent stirred and blinked awake. When he saw Damen he smiled, which Damen couldn't help but return.

“I thought maybe I'd dreamt you,” Laurent said, his voice thick with sleep. Damen still wasn't used to these easy moments and sweet endearments coming from Laurent. It was hard to reconcile it with the man who could just as easily spit acid and reduce a grown man to bones with words alone. “What time is it?”

“Late morning. How are you feeling?”

Laurent shifted, testing his body, wincing as he moved. “Like I was strung up, beaten, and stabbed. You?”

Damen shook his head in exasperation. “Slightly better than that. I'll have some food brought for us.”

Damen ducked his head out the door, giving his orders to the guards, then returned to the bed. He crawled over the sheets, smiling as he leaned down to press a kiss against Laurent's forehead.

“You look dreadful,” Damen teased.

“Thank you, you'll forgive me for not looking my best at the moment. I'd like to think I have a fairly reasonable excuse. Not all of us can look like you all the time.”

“Like me?”

“Yes, you're very—” Laurent waved his hand, gesturing to Damen, sprawled next to him. Damen watched as color bloomed across Laurent's cheeks. He could feel a giddy smile pulling at his lips as Laurent spoke. “Honestly, surely not all Akielons are crafted like you. No, wait, I've seen them. They're of a normal size, and not nearly as—” Laurent struggled to find the right word.

Damen saw the moment that Laurent chose, deliberately, to finish his thought. “Not nearly as attractive,” he said, the flush much brighter now.

“You think I'm attractive?” Damen's joy was uncontrollable.

“No, I simply keep you around for your usefulness. Who else would I use to smash my way out of brothels?”

Damen ignored the sarcasm, letting his gaze wander across Laurent's face.

“When I first met you,” Damen said finally, “my eyes were drawn to your beauty instantaneously, before I even knew who you were. And then—I hated you, but I couldn't stop looking at you, thinking of you. When Torveld was flirting with you—I didn't realize at the time, but I was jealous. If I had met you under different circumstances...” Damen trailed off, a litany of possibilities flowing through his mind.

“Maybe we would have met when my father and I came to Arles to make peace, and I would have seen you across the room and I would have been able to look at nothing else. I would have made a fool of myself in front of my father, and yours, and every important ambassador from both of our countries. We could have sat near each other at dinner, and I wouldn't have been able to eat, I would be so entranced. We could have first spoken on a balcony, the smell of night-blooming flowers around us, and I would have tripped over my words, stunned into stupidity by the sight of you.”

Laurent raised an eyebrow. “Clearly, you're stunned into stupidity now,” he said, but Damen noted that the color in his cheeks had deepened. “I know very well how it would have been. You would have found some lovely young Veretian noblewoman and swept her off her feet, shocking her Veretian sensibilities. Her father would have been fuming, terrified at the thought of his daughter with this Akielon barbarian. And I would have been across the hall, unnoticed, trying to convince myself that I didn't like Akielons anyways.”

They were both smiling now, the absurd imaginings playing out in front of them. After a moment, Damen grew contemplative as he looked down at Laurent, the sunlight bathing him in gold.

“No,” he said softly, the mood shifting. “Sometimes I wonder at the futures that could have been, had I made one choice instead of another. Had I taken one step down a different path. I imagine all of those futures existing alongside this one, playing out completely differently, a thousand iterations of myself wandering through a forest, all of them coming out somewhere new.”

He reached up to run his fingers through Laurent's hair. Damen's heart was quick in his chest at the thought of what he was saying, at what he was admitting, but now that they were here on this cliff's edge, he found himself falling helplessly down to drown in the blue of Laurent's eyes.

“They are countless, those unfathomable possibilities. But in all of those futures,” he paused, then let himself say it, “in all of them, I would have fallen for you. Whether I met you on my knees in chains or on a balcony as a prince or in front of a crowd as a king—at the end of each and every one of those paths, there is nothing waiting for me but you.”

Laurent's composure had slipped as Damen had spoken. His chest was rising and falling quicker, his lips parting, his brow furrowing slightly.

“You—I—how can you say that, when I...” he looked over at the window, searching, then looked back to Damen. “I have been cruel to you,” he said after a moment. “I have hurt you. Why would you want—” He didn't finish, but Damen heard the last word anyways: me.

“Have I not hurt you as well? Is not the pain you inflicted upon me but an echo of the pain I inflicted upon you first? We are products of incomprehensible chances, Laurent. I am more than the man who killed your brother, as you are more than the man who flayed open my back.” Laurent's breath hitched slightly, but he let Damen continue.

“Our pasts do not have to define our futures, any more than our circumstances have to define our hearts. And I have seen your heart, Laurent. It is pure.”

Laurent's face was a tangle of emotions as he looked up at Damen. Then, with a faint exhale, he reached up and pulled Damen down to him. The kiss was as warm and bright as the light around them, and Damen thought he felt an answer in it, a response that Laurent could not put into words.

They were interrupted some time later by the arrival of the food, which, frankly, Damen had forgotten about. Wrapping a loose sheet around his waist, Damen brought the platter over as Laurent leveraged himself up into a seated position. Damen placed it on his lap so that he could eat whatever he desired, then situated himself on the bed near Laurent's feet, leaning back comfortably on his elbows.

Laurent looked down at the platter, then up at Damen, a sly edge to his smile. “What, I have to feed myself? What happened to 'you should rest your arms, Laurent'?”

“And you have rested them. At least one of them seems to be functioning fine,” Damen said. “I have to draw the line somewhere. You'll get spoiled, and be incapable of doing anything without me.”

Laurent didn't reply, looking down and examining the food in front of him. He tilted his head, as though he couldn't decide what to eat. Then, making a decision, he picked up a particularly large grape and, with impeccable accuracy, threw it at Damen's forehead.

It startled a laugh out of Damen, the action so carefree and childish that he couldn't help it. Laurent selected another grape and Damen braced himself, but Laurent chose to eat that one, a wicked gleam in his eyes as he looked at Damen.

“You're right, my arm seems to be working fine,” he said innocently, picking through the food. Damen recovered the grape that Laurent had thrown at him, popping it into his mouth with a smile.

After they ate, they simply lazed in bed, talking. Laurent tried to get up several times, only to be promptly halted by Damen, with the threat of having Gaspard return for another examination. Damen knew it irked him to be stuck in bed while outside the fort the moving pieces of his uncle's plans continued, but they wouldn't know the fate of Nikandros and his army for at least another day and a half. Laurent needed the rest, and they would not have the luxury of this again.

In a pool of late afternoon sun, Damen drifted to sleep again, contentment and happiness draping over him like a blanket as Laurent idly dragged his fingers through Damen's hair. He woke some time later, the room darkening as the sun set, to the sound of soft voices speaking near him. He ignored them, strongly considering going back to sleep, until he recognized the voices. His attention caught, though he did not open his eyes.

“—didn't truly believe you were capable of it,” Laurent's voice said. “He is very trusting. It would be endearing, if it wasn't such a good way for him to get himself killed.”

“Come now, Your Highness. Let's not pretend you didn't try to kill him as well,” Jokaste replied. “I assume those brutal scars on his back were your handiwork? They won't go away just because you decided that you want to have him in your bed. You can fuck him all you like, but it won't erase what you've done.”

“Jealousy is not an attractive look on a face as pretty as yours,” Laurent replied.

There was a moment of silence that felt distinctly like the pause taken in a sword fight, a moment to reevaluate your opponent and adjust accordingly. Damen knew he should move, that he shouldn't listen to this, but his curiosity burned, and he stayed still. They would never talk so openly in his presence if they knew he was awake.

“Tell me,” Laurent said. “Why did you really help him enter Fortaine? There is no advantage for you if we are successful. You'd lose your chance to be Queen. Why not let me die in the cell, and Damen get captured trying to find me? It would have ensured the future you fought so hard for.”

“Damianos told you my terms. I don't relish even the slightest possibility of an outcome where my head ends up on a spike for treason. It may not be a throne, but living would suffice, if it came to that. I know how unyielding Damen can be, when he's put his mind to something. He wants Akielos, and only death will stop him.” A small pause. “Or, perhaps, the threat of your own.”

“You and I both know that he is more intelligent than that,” Laurent replied.

“The Damianos that I knew would not be swayed by it. But he has changed a great deal in a short amount of time. Your talent for manipulation must truly be remarkable.”

“You believe I am manipulating him?” Laurent asked.

“I believe you have your own plans—plans that you have not shared with him. What they are, whether they are benign or malicious—well, we'll see, won't we?”

Another stretch of silence.

“I'm still waiting to hear why you helped us,” Laurent said, his voice casual. “You may be able to convince Damen that your freedom is enough, but you and I understand each other better. You would not give up a chance to rule unless you had no other choice. So what has forced your hand?”

Damen heard Jokaste take a quiet breath, holding it for a few moments before releasing it. “You already know the answer to that.”

“Yes, I believe I do. When did my uncle set his sights on ruling Akielos as well as Vere?”

“To those who seek power,” Jokaste said, “there are no borders. I'm sure he's been looking for a way in for years. He saw the same thing I did in Kastor—corruption, weakness. Men like that are easy to control. All your uncle had to do was plant the seed, whisper the thoughts that were already in Kastor's heart, and sit back and watch as he handed the kingdom over.”

Damen was sure that they could hear his heart beating painfully against his ribs. To hear it spoken like this, so plainly—it was as if the truth had grown claws, and sunk them deep into Damen's chest. He hadn't felt it, not really, until now. His brother, his boyhood idol, the man who had taught him everything—Damen had held that Kastor separate from the one who had torn their family apart, as if they were two different people, as if they couldn't possibly be the same man.

The words he had spoken to Laurent came back to him. You hold Auguste in all the untouchable glory that you remember from when you were a child. I understand what it is to worship an older brother, to believe they are perfect, to see them without flaws. To be certain you will never measure up.

Damen saw now that, until this very moment, he had been doing the exact same thing.

It was a physical pain, the same one he had felt as he watched his father dying, as it finally hit him that he had lost the last of his family. As he forced himself to accept that the brother he had loved and the brother who had taken everything from him were one and the same. He felt it spread like ink through water, the awful things Kastor had done poisoning every bright memory from Damen's childhood.

He had never felt more alone.

The conversation had resumed. Damen forced himself to put Kastor to the side, for good.

“I think I see, now,” Laurent was saying. “You knew from the beginning that Kastor would never keep the throne. So you found the only way that didn't involve killing Damen, in the hopes that he would return to challenge my uncle. How selfless of you.”

“Do you think I would have been spared, had I stayed loyally by Damen's side? Believe me, my motivations were self-serving. Damen wouldn't listen...when he trusts someone, he does so with his whole heart, and will hear nothing against them. And, regardless, the plot was too far along by the time I discovered it—the King was already beyond saving. The only way I could survive the coup was to be in Kastor's bed. But that won't work a second time. Your uncle has no reason to keep me alive. If he takes Akielos, my life is forfeit. My future depends upon Damianos taking back his kingdom. Any chance I had of being Queen died long before Kastor killed his father.”

Laurent paused before he spoke again. His voice was gentler than it normally was. “If you had only wanted to spare yourself, you would have run. You can pretend that there was no other reason in it, but your actions are not those of someone who doesn't care.”

Jokaste didn't respond.

“It is easier, to detach yourself from something you know you are going to lose,” Laurent continued. “I understand that well. But we both know that it doesn't work. Not with him.”

“It's remarkable, isn't it?” Jokaste replied after a moment. “When he looks at you, it's as if the stars have fallen to live inside your skin. It's easy to feel powerful next to him. In another future, maybe I would have ruled beside him. In another life, maybe I could have been what he needed. In this life—maybe you are.”

Damen heard the rustle of silks as Jokaste stood. Her voice was farther away, near the door, when she spoke again.

“Whatever your intentions are, you should know that he's falling in love with you. I do not know if you return those affections—but it would be a shame for all my selfish work to be wasted. As long as you remain on the path that restores Damen to his throne, I will be your ally. Turn from that path...”

“I understand. Good evening, Lady Jokaste.”

“Your Highness.”

Damen heard the door close as Jokaste left. He remained still, his mind reeling from the conversation. After several long minutes, he felt the bed dip as Laurent eased himself onto it beside Damen.

“How much did you hear?” Laurent's voice was soft, and Damen opened his eyes to find him looking down at Damen with a wry twist to his mouth. Damen considered pretending he had heard nothing, as it was not particularly kingly to eavesdrop on a conversation, especially one between your past lover and your current one.

“Damen,” said Laurent, raising one imperious eyebrow at him. “It would be useless to try to tell me you weren't listening. You are a terrible liar. Besides, your breathing changes when you're awake.”

“I—most of it,” Damen admitted. “Although I may have missed some of it, I'm not sure. I awoke somewhere in the middle.”

Laurent sighed and looked towards the window, though he didn't seem upset, merely thoughtful. Damen sat up, and Laurent absently reached out his hand, which Damen took in his own.

“Do you really believe that she wasn't trying to rule?” Damen finally asked.

Laurent looked back at him, considering. “I believe that she wanted it. She truly is a kingmaker. Had Kastor been her path to the throne, she would have taken it. But she is right—Kastor is only a pawn in my uncle's game. He was never going to rule, not really.” He watched Damen as he chose his next words. “Her motivations were her own, but despite what she would have us think, they were not entirely so. I believe that the reason you are alive is because she saw the only chance, and took it. Whether she did that to save her own life or yours—I'm not sure even she knows the true answer to that.”

Damen's thoughts were complex, and he found that he didn't particularly want to untangle them, not now. Laurent looked down at their intertwined fingers. His brow was furrowed, his face serious.

“She was right about something else, too,” Laurent said quietly, still not meeting Damen's eyes. “The scars on your back—you will bear them for the rest of your life. I cannot erase them.”

“We don't have to—”

“Yes, we do,” Laurent said, looking up, his eyes sharp. “You act as if it were excusable, what I did to you. When I was down in that cell, I knew nothing but agony, nothing but the breath of my own death on my cheek, waiting for me. That's when I understood exactly what I had done to you.”

“Laurent—”

“No, listen to me. You lavish me with promises, with affection. Me, the same man who watched with satisfaction as you were flayed to within an inch of your life. I would have killed you, you know. I wanted to.” Laurent swallowed hard, but he did not look away from Damen. “I will not ask for your forgiveness, because what I did to you is unforgivable. I was so blinded by hatred and revenge that I—” He broke off. His voice was soft when he continued. “I want you to know that I am sorry. Every time I look at your back, I can hear the sound of it—”

“Laurent.” Damen tightened his hand around Laurent's, stopping him before he dragged them both down that dark path. “Forgiveness is not something you earn. It's a gift, given freely. A gift you already gave me, and one I happily return back to you.”

“But—”

“No. There are no caveats, no conditions, no stipulations. I—I will never forget the things that happened to me when I was a slave, including the whip. Just as you will never forget your brother's death. I will not sit here and pretend that—” Damen paused, taking a steadying breath, “—that it wasn't the most difficult time of my life. It was. It's a part of who I am now, forever. But I already told you...the things that have happened to us, they're important, and we should never forget them, but they belong to the past. Yes, you gave me these scars. But you also gave me my freedom.”

“I didn't—you were freed as soon as you found Nikandros.”

Damen shook his head. “No. You removed my collar. Willingly. You wear the other cuff. That means something to me.”

Laurent looked down, a furrow still wrinkling his brow. Damen reached out and slid his fingers under Laurent's jaw, tilting his chin up, forcing Laurent to look at him. Damen made sure he was listening closely before he continued.

“You're right,” he said softly. “You can't erase them. But the scars we bear are a mark of what we've come through to get where we are now. These are no different. I'll wear them proudly, as a reminder of all that we overcame together. We cannot let the ghost of it live between us, Laurent, or it will haunt us the rest of our days. It's time to leave it where it belongs, in the past. You already have my forgiveness. It's time to forgive yourself.”

Laurent's eyes were bright, and Damen watched as he blinked away the thin veil of moisture that had gathered in them. Then he nodded, clutching Damen's hand tighter. Damen let the moment exist, pure and untouched, then smiled, moving on.

“Also, I am not that terrible a liar,” he said lightly, running his thumb over the back of Laurent's hand.

Laurent snorted, accepting Damen's blatant change of topic. “Please, Damen. Even when your life depended on it, you couldn't convince me you were a common soldier. If I hadn't recognized you immediately, I would have guessed within days.”

Damen opened his mouth to protest, but Laurent leaned in to kiss him, forestalling any objections. Laurent broke away, a small smile on his face.

“Don't worry,” he said. “It's endearing. You have no mind for deception, which is refreshingly straightforward. I've had enough lies for one lifetime.”

Laurent pulled Damen to him, and the conversation was left behind. “We should have dinner brought up,” Damen murmured against Laurent's lips, who merely hummed disinterestedly and kissed him more thoroughly.

Dinner was very late.

Chapter Text

Damen awoke the next morning to find Laurent sitting up beside him, reading. Damen had no idea where Laurent had found the book, though he certainly would have had to leave the bed to do so. He supposed he should be upset about that, but Laurent looked so peaceful, so himself, Damen couldn't bring himself to care.

Laurent looked over at him, then turned back to the book. “I wasn't sure you would awaken at all,” he said, turning a page. “Surely I didn't wear you out that much.”

Damen made a sleepy, disgruntled sound in his throat and rolled until he was nestled at Laurent's side, burrowing further into the sheets and throwing an arm across Laurent to pull him closer, pinning the book under his elbow.

“Excuse me,” Laurent said indignantly, though there was a hint of laughter in his voice. “I was reading. Do you mind?”

“Not at all,” Damen mumbled, smiling. “Go right ahead.”

That earned him a gentle swat. “Pest,” Laurent said, though Damen could swear there was more than a hint of fondness to it.

He wished he could stay like this all day, curled up against Laurent in the bright sunlight streaming in from the windows, but the outside world was a pressing weight, and Damen knew that their brief respite was over. He sighed, moving to sit upright against the pillows, rubbing a hand over his face.

“Are you going to let me out of this room today, or do I continue to be your captive?”

Damen raised his eyebrows as he looked over at Laurent. “Would you like a collar to make you feel more the part? I think it would suit you.”

Laurent's eyes sparked. “I don't think it would look nearly as good on me as it did on you. Such a pity you don't still have yours. Your neck looks so bare without it.” He reached out and ran a finger over Damen's throat. Damen had to suppress a shiver at the touch.

“Menace.”

“Barbarian.”

Damen shook his head with a soft smile. “As much as I would like to, I suppose I cannot keep you in this bed forever. Though it feels cruel to let you loose on the fort. I hope Guion enjoyed his reprieve.”

“Oh, I'm sure he spent every moment of it trying to untangle himself from his situation,” Laurent said. “Unfortunately for him, and luckily for us, most of the men here are more loyal to the crown than to him. They have spent their lives fighting on the border—the starburst means something here.”

“What do we do now?”

“Now we wait,” Laurent said, “for my uncle's countermove. His deadline has passed. It's possible he knows by now that Fortaine is mine. There are many things he might do.”

Damen watched him. “What would you do, in his place?”

Laurent was silent for a long stretch of time. Finally, he looked over at Damen, his gaze cool and impassive.

“In his place, I would spread word of the treachery of the Crown Prince, reveal his alliance with Akielos, and blame him for a child's death. And then I would sail for Ios.”

Shock flooded through Damen, drowning out all other thoughts as he sat up straight. “What?”

“He will not attack Fortaine, not outright. Which means I have no reason to leave—unless something were to draw me out. He needs to weaken me. What better way to do that than to force my strongest and most trusted ally to choose between me and his own country?”

Damen was struggling to process Laurent's words. He felt as though a snare had closed around him, sudden and inescapable. The Regent, slithering his way into the halls of his father—it was an unbearable, sickening thought.

“You knew he would do this?”

“Yes.” Laurent did not look away, absorbing the accusation without reaction. “When his messenger arrived with the ultimatum, it didn't take long to play it out to its inevitable outcomes. I go to Toulour, or I give him reason enough to invade Akielos. Either way he gets what he wants. I didn't anticipate this detour, but the results are effectively the same.”

Helplessness and anger rose in Damen, thudding hot in his veins. “Why didn't you tell me? I could have—we could have—” He struggled to think, to come up with some way he could have stopped it before it was too late.

“Could have what? There was only one thing that would have stopped him. Did you really think that I rode to Toulour over a single child pet? I cared for Nicaise, and I wanted to spare him— but it takes more than that to get me to lay down my throne quietly.”

If his first words had been a shock, these were a striking blow, forcing the air from Damen's lungs. The crystalline ice of Laurent's unwavering gaze washed over him, extinguishing the heat of his anger, leaving him in a daze of emotions. Surely Damen was misinterpreting what Laurent was saying. Surely there was something he was missing. Because what Laurent was telling him was that he had been willing to sacrifice his rule—and his life—for Akielos. For Damen.

He remembered what Laurent had said, when Damen had accused him of throwing everything away. I won't let the blood of innocents be spilled on my behalf. Damen had assumed that he had only been talking about Nicaise, not thinking about the plural that Laurent had used.

“Oh, don't look at me like that,” Laurent said, finally breaking eye contact, turning to look out the windows. “It wasn't as noble as you are imagining. I was going to come up with a plan, before my uncle actually went through with the execution. The last thing I needed was my uncle in Akielos, with your brother's alliance, and to lose you and your army to a war across the border. I chose the least offensive of two fairly inconvenient outcomes.”

Damen's mind was still reeling, though a small, absurd voice in his head noted that only Laurent would classify his own possible death as 'inconvenient'.

He finally regained the ability to form coherent sentences. “And how exactly were you going to get out of your execution?”

Laurent looked away, avoiding his gaze. “I—hadn't quite solidified that yet. I thought I would have more time.”

Damen shook his head in exasperation, but he was quickly sobered by the thought of his country, his home, being drawn into this twisted, complex, deadly game. He leaned his head back against the headboard, staring at the ceiling as if the answer were written there, as if it were just a matter of looking hard enough.

He felt Laurent shift beside him, and then there were fingers being threaded through his own. He looked down at their interlocked hands, then back over to Laurent.

“I promise you that I will not let him do this. I cannot stop him from going to Ios, but we will figure something out. I won't allow him to—” Laurent broke off. “If you want to dissolve our alliance, I would understand. Your allegiance belongs to Akielos. But I seem to have suddenly found myself with an extra two thousand men. They're yours, if you would have them.”

If someone had told Damen a few months ago that he would trust Laurent, that Laurent would offer him help without any ulterior motives, he would have laughed. But now—he swallowed down his worry, and he found himself believing Laurent. They would find a way out of this. He tightened his grip on Laurent's hand in gratitude. Conviction burned slowly through his veins, replacing helplessness with resolve.

“He expects you to go running off with your army, to leave me here alone. It's what he wants,” Laurent said, not quite meeting his eyes.

“It's what Crown Prince Damianos would do,” Damen said slowly, “and I will admit that some part of me yearns to do exactly that. But I am not him anymore.” Damen's voice was low but fierce as he looked over at Laurent. “And I will never—never—give your uncle what he wants.”

Laurent's gaze was piercing as he pushed out a breath. “I don't think he understands what he did when he gave me you. Time and time again you stand against him, surprise him, and still he underestimates you, waiting for you to turn on me.”

“He underestimates both of us. He believes that our hatred runs too deep. That you could never trust me. One day I will look in his eyes and watch him realize that it has been his undoing.”

Laurent smiled softly. Silence settled between them. Then:

“Now will you let me out of this bed? Please don't make me beg. It's unbecoming for a prince.”

*****

Damen helped change Laurent's bandages, applying fresh salve. His wounds were already beginning to look better, some of his bruises beginning to fade, though some of them were simply turning more colorful.

He began the lengthy process of lacing Laurent into his clothing, once again cursing ridiculous Veretian fashion. A chiton would be so much simpler and accommodating for Laurent's injuries. He realized with dismay that he would also have to suffer through Veretian clothing, until he could procure a sensible wardrobe.

As if sensing his vexation, Laurent spoke. “I had them bring clothing for you. It was difficult to find it in the right size—there aren't many Veretians of your build running around Fortaine.” Damen simply sighed in response, and he could feel Laurent's amusement as he did up the remaining laces.

Half an hour later, they found themselves in an enormous gilded hall, facing Guion over the large expanse of the table between them.

“I trust you've been given every comfort,” Guion said, his smile not reaching his eyes.

Laurent's smile in return was colder still. “Much improved from my previous accommodations, thank you.”

There was a sharp silence, which Laurent made no effort to break, instead letting Guion shift uncomfortably under his searing gaze. Damen, used to these unspoken battles of will, was grateful he was no longer on the receiving end. Finally, Laurent spoke.

“Has my uncle sailed for Ios?”

Damen watched a fleeting look of surprise pass over Guion's face before he smoothed it back into forced disinterest. “Yes. He sailed at dawn. The ship was to leave as soon as your three days had passed.”

“What is his plan?”

Guion laughed without humor. “What has his plan ever been? To rule.”

Damen's pulse spiked as an image filled his mind of the Regent sprawled on his father's throne, his rich red silks garish and out of place in the simple halls of Ios. He pushed it down. There was no use for his anger here.

Guion was watching him. “I didn't expect you to stay. I would have thought you'd be halfway to Sicyon by now.”

“My place is here.”

“Going to let Akielos be taken just like that? I'm surprised.” Guion paused. “Then again, you did already let it happen once. Maybe you simply no longer care, as long as there is a blond in your bed—I suppose one is much the same as another.”

Damen opened his mouth, enraged, but was interrupted by Laurent before he could say anything.

“I would think carefully before you provoke him, Guion,” Laurent said calmly. “One day this will all be over. Damianos has a long memory, and I will not stop him from doing as he likes. You saw what happened to Govart.”

Guion paled slightly at the threat.

“I am under no illusion that you are loyal to me,” Laurent continued, “but I would suggest trying your best to fake it. Until the time comes for my uncle to finally dispose of me, it is in your best interest to serve myself and King Damianos. It would be such a shame if the rest of the country found out that you had me in your cells, or if my uncle were to hear about how kind it was for you and your family to help me escape.”

Guion's face had taken on an ugly, mottled flush. “I didn't help you escape.”

“Isn't it unfortunate how easily false information spreads? All it takes is one whisper in the right ear, and then seemingly overnight every man, woman, and child believes it to be true.”

Looking as though he had swallowed a lemon, Guion turned to Damen. “My apologies, Your Majesty.”

Damen said nothing, doing his best approximation of Laurent's withering indifference. To his satisfaction, Guion looked away first.

“Now,” said Laurent. “I want to know everything that my uncle—”

The door flew open, slamming with an echoing force against the wall as a servant rushed in.

“My Lord—”

Guion had stood up in outrage. “Can you not see that I am in a private meeting with the Prince of Vere and the King of Akielos? Have you taken leave of all of your senses?”

“I'm sorry, my Lord, but you must come. Now.”

Damen felt a trickle of dread run down his spine, cold and unpleasant, at the panic in the servant's voice.

“What is it?” Guion said, the faintest trace of the same dread lacing through his words.

“It's your son, my Lord. It's Aimeric.”

*****

Sunlight streamed through beautiful glass windows, arched and framed with gilded scrolls. One of them was open, a warm breeze playing into the room, fluttering the silk drapes that fell on either side of the window.

The room was beautiful, with a vast, luxurious bed and intricately-woven rugs plush under Damen's feet. A large tapestry threaded with gold glinted in the light, hung on the far wall. The stones of the floor were a pure, white marble, smooth and bright.

The blood was jarring against its pristine surface.

Shock and horror had dulled Damen's thoughts, while his senses had sharpened, rendering the world around him into a disconcerting, dreamlike landscape. He could hear his own breath loud in his ears, could see every fine strand of hair framing Laurent's face. The light breeze raised shivers along his skin. He turned, almost against his will, to look back to the dreadful scene before them.

Guion was seated at a small table, staring at the windows without seeing them. It was as though he had been drained of all emotion, a disparate contrast to his wife, who had come running in minutes after they had been summoned.

Loyse was sprawled on the cold, cruel stone, cradling her son's lifeless body to her, rocking back and forth as if she were holding an infant. Tears streamed down her face, though she didn't make a sound. She was looking down at Aimeric, brushing her fingers through his hair, her heartbreak so visceral and intense that Damen wanted to turn away from it. Blood has soaked into the silks of her rich dress, though it was clear that nothing had ever mattered to her less.

Damen, unable to bear witness any longer, looked over at the table. His attention was drawn to a piece of parchment as the breeze lifted its corner, shifting it. He moved slowly over to it, looking down at the slanted, elegant writing that was there.

A small sob broke from Loyse's throat, which seemed to draw Guion's attention back to the present. He looked down at his wife and son, anger and grief finally flickering over his features.

“You did this.”

Though he was looking at Loyse, his words were directed at Laurent. The scathing tone would have brought a lesser man to his knees. Laurent, however, showed no reaction to the accusation.

“I was with you in the hall. Aimeric did this himself. I had nothing to do with it. ”

“You know very well of what I speak,” Guion spat, his fists clenched at his side as he turned to glare at Laurent. “If it weren't for you, he would be alive.”

Damen had finished the letter, a hollow, sick feeling settling in the pit of his stomach. He looked back at Loyse, who showed no sign that she was listening, then over to Guion, who seemed moments from throwing himself at Laurent.

“No.”

Guion flinched at Damen's voice, as though it had been a physical blow, and turned to him.

“What did you say?”

“No, Guion,” Damen repeated. “You can blame the Prince all you like, but there was a poison in Aimeric's heart that had been planted there long ago. Though I'm sure that it would comfort you to lay the fault with His Highness, I'm afraid the truth is more difficult than that. This was not Laurent's doing. It was your own.”

He reached over, sliding the letter forward to Guion, who picked it up. His face slowly drained of color as he read.

Loyse had finally looked up at Damen's words, tears still streaming silently down her face as she watched her husband read the letter. Guion finished reading, his eyes looking at the paper but not seeing it. His fingers loosened, and the parchment fluttered down to the stone at Loyse's side. Damen wished he could spare her from the letter, wished he could have set Aimeric on a different path, any other path that would have led anywhere but here. Loyse reached over, picking up the discarded parchment, leaving a small streak of blood across the top.

He could almost hear the words again as he watched them wash over Loyse, uncaring waves against a bruised and battered shore.

I find myself searching for an explanation, a justification for my actions and my failures. But I have found they no longer matter. I was raised in the shadows of my brothers, of my father, and I thought I had finally found my way into the light. I see now that it was not the sun but a candle, flickering and finite, extinguished with the lightest breath. Its warmth was a lure I could not deny, but I cannot find the strength to return to the darkness and the cold now that its flame has gone out.

Father—I will never forgive you for providing the match that lit it.

Please tell Jord to remember me as I was. Tell him I'm sorry. The best hours of my life were spent with him.

I realized too late that he was the sun.

*****

Chapter Text

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?”

Not helping.

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.

“Yes.”

“And we are staying here.”

“For now.”

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.

*****

Chapter Text

“I think that went well.”

Damen groaned, sinking back into the cushions behind him, rubbing his hand over his face before looking over at Laurent, who was smiling over at him as if they had just finished a pleasant conversation over tea.

“Why do you insist upon provoking him so? We are fighting for our thrones. Have you forgotten that? We need Nikandros if we have any hope of succeeding.”

“It is painfully clear that Nikandros is loyal to you until death. Nothing I say will change that. I just like seeing him turn red,” Laurent said. “It's entertaining.”

“Find other entertainment.”

Laurent leaned forward, looking at Damen with a suggestive smirk. “What did you have in mind?”

Jokaste cleared her throat. “I'd rather you wait until I was no longer in the room,” she said airily.

Damen rounded on her. “I seem to have no recollection of inviting you in the first place.”

“He had to know, Damen,” Jokaste said, eyebrows raised. “Whether he heard it from you or saw me as I passed in the courtyard, there was no scenario in which this played out well. The sooner he knows, the sooner he can accept it. And the sooner he accepts it, the sooner we can get to work.”

Damen knew she had a point, but he was too drained from the events of the day to even contemplate admitting that to her. “You will not do such a thing again,” he said. “Not without my express permission.”

Jokaste watched him for a long moment. “As you wish, Exalted,” she said. Coming from her, it sounded like an insult.

There was a knock on the door, and a moment later it opened. Damen felt his stomach drop as Jord walked a few feet inside before dropping to his knee in a bow.

“Your Highness...Your Majesty....my apologies for being late.”

Damen stood, turning to Jokaste. “It's time for you to go,” he said, and there must have been something in his voice, for she nodded and stood with no hint of her usual contempt. She strode past Jord and was gone.

Damen walked over to Jord, holding out a hand to pull him to his feet. Jord grasped it, rising with a smile. “It's good to see you again, Damen,” he said, his voice warm and genuine. He glanced over at Laurent, taking in his fading bruises, then looked back at Damen. “Thank you for finding him.”

Damen forced a smile onto his own face, though it felt wrong. “It's good to see you, too,” he said, gesturing to the couch that had been occupied by Nikandros. “Please, join us.” Jord sat, and Damen poured him a goblet of wine before taking his own seat again.

“Nikandros tells us that you are the reason Ravenel is ours,” Laurent said. “You have our deepest gratitude.”

Jord looked down, shrugging against the praise. “I asked myself what you would do, Your Highness. Nikandros believed it dishonorable, in the beginning, but he came around...with some persuading.”

“And working with the Akielons?”

“There were some...difficult moments. It's not easy for either of our countries to put aside a generation of hatred. But I have recently discovered,” Jord said, lifting his eyes to Damen, “that men of honor have no nationality. We fight for the same cause, for the same reason. There is little that brings men together more than that.”

Laurent looked over at Damen, smiling slightly. “Yes, I recently discovered that as well,” he said.

Jord cleared his throat, and though there was no discernible change, Damen's pulse sped up at the sound of it. A moment later, Jord spoke, his voice hesitant. “I know there are more important things to discuss—but since we are at Fortaine...” He looked up at Damen, his expression a heartbreaking mixture of hope and fear. “I have to know. Is he here?”

The time had come. Damen's heart was beating a painful tattoo against his ribs as he stared at Jord. There were many difficult responsibilities that came with being King, and Damen would likely face innumerable hard choices and unpleasant confrontations before he sat upon his throne in Ios for the first time. But this...this was not one of his responsibilities as a king. It was one of his responsibilities as a friend. And that made it so much worse.

“Yes, Jord,” Damen said with a heavy voice. “He was here.”

Confusion spread across Jord's face. “'Was?'” he asked.

Damen did not lower his eyes. He would not turn away from this. Each word feeling like a blade in his throat, he spoke the words. “Aimeric—he's dead, Jord. He took his own life this morning.”

It was like watching a man get struck, over and over, as if each word was a blow from a sword. Jord blanched, the color draining from his face, and the goblet fell from his fingertips, clattering against the floor as its contents spilled across the marble. Damen watched as Jord attempted to make sense of it.

“No,” he said, his voice faint, his eyes glazing slightly. “It's—not possible. He had no reason to...”

Laurent leaned forward, and Jord's gaze swung to him, a drowning man searching for air. “He betrayed us, Jord,” Laurent said, his voice uncharacteristically gentle. “He conspired with his father to turn me over to my uncle. He would have succeeded, if Damen hadn't found me.”

“I don't—” There was an empty look in Jord's eyes, as if he had withdrawn from his own body, leaving behind just a shell. “I can't—”

Silence bloomed between them as Jord searched for an answer, as the truth sank its claws deep into him, unwilling to let go. Damen understood how he was feeling. He would have given anything to live forever in the moment before he knew the truth of what his brother had done.

But sometimes the world was cruel and unforgiving, with no pity for the fragile lives of men.

Finally, not quite meeting their eyes, Jord asked the final question.

“Why?”

Damen sighed. “When he was younger,” he said, “Aimeric crossed paths with the Regent.”

Jord's flinch told Damen well enough that he knew exactly what 'crossed paths' meant.

“He was—exactly the kind of boy that matched my uncle's tastes,” Laurent said. “My uncle excels in getting them to believe he loves them, and when they get too old, when he discards them without a backward glance...” Laurent broke off. They all knew that it had broken something within Aimeric, something fundamental. “This was his one last chance, in his mind, to earn back the affection that he so craved.”

Revulsion washed over Jord's face as he listened, mixing with the pain in a way that made his features almost unrecognizable. Damen watched as, slowly, Jord shuttered his emotions, pulling them all back inside himself, locking them deep within. The dull look in his eyes after was almost worse.

He looked over at Laurent, forcing his voice to be steady. “I'm sorry, Your Highness. As your Captain, and as his...” Jord broke off, the word lover clearly on the tip of his tongue. Damen watched as he swallowed it down. “I should have been able to see it. I was blinded, and my oversight nearly got you killed.” He reached up, unpinning his captain's badge, placing it in front of Laurent. “This should not belong to me any longer.”

Laurent reached over, picking up the badge, running his thumb over its face. “Do you know why I chose you to be my Captain, Jord?” he said.

Jord shook his head, closing his eyes. Laurent stood, pacing over to the window.

“I chose you because you did not seek it. There are men who want thrones, who want titles, who want power, simply because they want to see others bend at the knee for them. They rise by stepping on the backs of those who serve them. But a leader—a true leader—he will offer his own back, so that the men he leads may raise themselves up on it.”

He turned to Jord, who had opened his eyes, but was staring miserably at the floor. “It is a rare man who would hand this badge back to me,” he continued, walking slowly back to where Jord sat. “Men who are driven by power do not give it up willingly. But you are driven by honor, by justice, and by truth. And I won't allow you to use those things to justify giving up.”

He was stopped in front of Jord now, who finally looked up at his Prince. Laurent looked down at him, his blue gaze full of steel and fire.

“None of us saw what hid in the dark corners of Aimeric's heart. My uncle is very good at twisting men. He finds the thread that holds them together and pulls, weaving it into a tapestry of his own intentions, and then laughs when it unravels them. Whatever there was between you and Aimeric, I believe it was true. If you believe the same, you will not allow it to be stolen from you by the greed and corruption of the Regent.”

He held the badge out to Jord. “You are still my Captain, until I say otherwise,” he said, his voice unyielding. “Today is yours, to do what you need with it. Mourn. Seek what comfort you can. Tomorrow, we begin our work. I expect you to be by my side.”

Laurent said it in the same austere tone he used every time he issued an order, but he knew his captain well—Jord's shoulders straightened at the words, and Damen could almost see the steel returning to his spine. He rose slowly to his feet, then reached out and took the badge from Laurent's fingers. He looked down at it, then up at Laurent. “Thank you, Your Highness,” he said, and Damen was relieved to hear a hint of the old Jord in it. “I will strive to prove that your faith is not misplaced.”

Laurent moved back. Jord looked over at Damen, who rose and walked over to him, standing an arms-length away. Words were unnecessary, impossible. Damen reached out to clasp his shoulder, hoping that Jord understood. Jord nodded at Damen, placing his own hand on Damen's forearm in acknowledgment before letting it drop.

Damen let go, stepping back to stand at Laurent's side. Jord looked at them both before pinning the Captain's badge back on his uniform. With a deep breath, he turned and slipped quietly out the door.

Laurent looked down at Jord's spilled wine. “You should probably wipe that up,” he said without looking at Damen. “I'd hate to have the marble stained in the finest room of my new fort.”

Damen didn't move.

Laurent's gaze swept up to take in Damen's raised eyebrow. He narrowed his eyes at the expression he found on Damen's face.

“Yes, yes, I'm well aware you aren't a slave anymore. I just wanted to see if you would do it. Would you like to pull rank on me? It would be interesting, for you to be the one issuing orders for once. Do you think I would obey?”

Damen had a sudden urge to try it. The idea of Laurent doing what Damen told him to do was illicit, thrilling. Instead, he turned and walked away, retrieving a cloth to clean up the spilled wine. He knew what Laurent was doing.

Kneeling down to soak the wine up with the cloth, Damen spoke. “It was kind, what you said to Jord.”

Laurent stared at him, watching him mop up the wine. After a long silence, he turned away, walking over to the tapestry that hung on the wall near the door.

“It had nothing to do with kindness,” he said, tracing the pattern of a vine across the tapestry. “Jord is the best of my men, and I need him if I'm to take back my throne. I won't have him throwing it away for the sake of one spoiled aristocrat.”

Damen didn't reply, though he knew Laurent was waiting for it. He took his time, eliminating all traces of the spilled wine. Standing, he set the fallen goblet upright on the table before tossing the stained cloth into a corner. He walked over to Laurent, who reacted to his proximity by not reacting. Damen, however, knew better. Months ago, Damen would have thought him unconcerned. Now, he knew the tells—the slight straightening of Laurent's spine, the tiny twitch of a finger, the careful tension he carried within himself whenever he thought he needed to be guarded.

“I thought we were done lying to each other,” Damen said softly, and Laurent stopped tracing the tapestry, his hand freezing over the delicate embroidery of a tree. “It's not weakness, to be kind.”

“I'm not lying,” Laurent said. When Damen didn't respond, Laurent finally met his gaze. “Alright, I'm not entirely lying,” he admitted. “I do need him.”

“But that wasn't why you said what you said.”

Laurent's gaze was searing, boring into Damen. “After Auguste died, I sought comfort from the only person I believed still loved me. It didn't take long for me to learn that kindness was something I couldn't afford. He used it against me, a sword turned back upon its owner, sharp and deadly. Weakness is exactly what it is.”

“Your uncle isn't here to harm you,” Damen said. “And to be kind in the face of evil men and difficult circumstances is an act of defiance. A declaration to let the world know that you see it is full of pain and darkness, and you will not bend to it. It is easy to be cruel when you have been subjected to cruelty. But those who are bold enough to be kind are not weak. It's a quiet power, but it is power nonetheless.”

Tension was singing through Laurent's body, though he didn't look away from Damen. He took several slow, deep breaths, and Damen watched as, muscle by muscle, he let himself relax. He turned back to look at the tapestry, though Damen didn't believe he was avoiding him this time, but instead trying to gather his thoughts.

“When I was fifteen,” Laurent said, “Jord stumbled upon me in the practice ring. My training had ended hours ago, but I refused to stop. I had decided that if I was ever going to be good enough to beat you, I had to dedicate every spare second I had to it. Training had not gone well—I was not naturally gifted with the same talents as Auguste. Exertion and frustration had combined to eliminate my ability to control my thoughts, and all I could think about was how I would never be good enough. I would always be too weak to avenge Auguste.”

It was strange, to be part of a story he had never been present in. Laurent had only begun to exist to him mere months ago, but for Laurent, Damen had been a part of his life for years. He was again struck by how difficult it must be, for Laurent to look at him, to kiss him, to talk about Auguste with him. And yet he had chosen Damen. He was still choosing Damen. It was an overwhelming feeling.

“I was crying,” Laurent continued, clearly reluctant to admit that. Damen almost couldn't picture it, Laurent letting go enough to cry. “I had fallen to my knees, exhausted, my sword abandoned beside me. And then I heard footsteps. The thought of someone seeing me like that was unbearable. But when I stood and turned, Jord wasn't even looking. He was examining the swords as if he couldn't decide which one he wanted. He chose one, then turned around and pretended to see me for the first time.

“'Your Highness,' he said, 'I didn't see you there. I thought to get in some extra practice. I would be honored if you would spar with me.' He is almost as bad of a liar as you are.” Laurent shot an amused look at Damen. “To be honest, I didn't know if I could even lift my sword. But I agreed, and the energy and attention it took to fight him drew me out of the prison of my own thoughts.”

Damen was quiet for a moment. “Did you win?” he asked, and Laurent looked over at him with a small smile.

“No,” he said. “That was what I appreciated the most. He didn't pity me, or coddle me, or treat me as if I were made of glass, liable to shatter at any moment. He pointed out when my footwork needed adjusting, or if my grip was wrong, but otherwise he fought me as if I were a worthy adversary. It only took him a few minutes to disarm me. But I didn't mind.” Laurent's gaze was unfocused, as if watching something far away, reliving a moment that had, in some way, shaped him. Finally, coming back to himself, he looked up at Damen. “He never spoke of it, to me or anyone else. I never thanked him for that. It was one of the only acts of compassion I was given in those years.”

“You thanked him by honoring him with Captaincy. For a man like Jord, there is no greater reward.”

Laurent nodded absently, and Damen once again had the impression that Laurent was seeing through him to his very bones.

“I will try,” Laurent said slowly, “to be more kind. But there will be times I won't succeed, and there will be times that I don't intend to.”

Damen nodded, snaking an arm around Laurent's waist to pull him closer. “You could practice with me,” he said mildly, and he could feel the playful smile that was spreading across his face. “It would be kind, for instance, if you were to kiss me.”

Laurent raised an eyebrow at him, cocking his head. “Are you suggesting I go around kissing everyone to show my benevolence? That would be absolutely devastating to my reputation.”

“No,” Damen said firmly, sliding his free hand around to the back of Laurent's neck. “I think I would get jealous. I'm told I can be quite unpleasant to anyone who tries to take what's mine.”

“And am I yours?” Laurent asked, each word carefully accentuated, watching Damen closely as he spoke.

Damen was having a hard time focusing as Laurent's hand slid up his chest. His eyes were drawn down to Laurent's mouth, full and soft, before he looked back up to the searing blue eyes. “I don't know—are you?”

Laurent's kiss seemed to be answer enough as he pushed Damen back against the tapestry.

*****

It took several hours to settle the army within the spacious walls of Fortaine. The evening found them in the grand hall, as a feast sprawled out in front of them. Damen, Laurent, and their closest advisors sat at a large table near the front of the hall. Guion was there too, with Loyse—though it was more to keep an eye on him than anything.

Nikandros had brought Damen his wardrobe, a relief so strong that Damen had stripped out of his Veretian clothing almost immediately. He now wore a chiton with his customary red cloak, pinned with gold. He had jokingly offered a chiton to Laurent to wear, which had earned him a scathing look and an impressively explicit explanation of what it would take for him to ever consider it.

He sat beside Damen, laced up in a jacket that was so deep blue it seemed almost black. Against it, his skin and his hair were like sunlight, bright and luminous. Had he been sitting across the hall, Damen would have been no less drawn to him, a moth to a torch.

“You're staring again,” Laurent said without looking at him.

Damen flushed slightly, then cleared his throat. “I was just noting that your injuries are barely discernible like this,” he said. It was true—the only outward sign of Laurent's brush with death that wasn't covered by his clothing was a fading bruise across his cheekbone, barely noticeable in the warm light.

Laurent looked over at him, amused. “That is rather the point,” he said. “I'd prefer not to shout to the entire hall that Govart had his way with me.”

Anger spiked hot through Damen's blood. “He didn't,” he said, his voice coming out in a low growl.

“Relax,” Lauren said, reaching over to rest his hand on Damen's forearm. “I didn't mean it like that.”

Damen forced the feeling down. It was irrational, he knew, to be angry about something that hadn't happened, but he couldn't help it. “I'm sorry,” he said to Laurent. “I just—I can't stand the thought of it, of someone taking advantage of you.”

Laurent's expression changed, and he broke their eye contact, looking out across the hall. His hand left Damen's forearm to pick up the goblet on the table in front of him, his elegant fingers wrapping gracefully around the jeweled rim. He took a long drink.

“Nikandros,” he said, louder, leaning forward to look past Damen. “Did you come across anything interesting on your journey here?”

Nikandros stared at Laurent, clearly taken aback by Laurent's friendly tone. “We didn't encounter many others on the road,” he said slowly, as if he were walking into a trap. “There was very little news.”

“That's a shame,” Laurent said. “I was hoping for a glimpse of whether the Regent's lies have spread yet.”

Damen noticed Nikandros shift uncomfortably in his chair. “Well,” Nikandros said, “there was...we did pass a farmer from a small village on the road. He saw the starburst banner and stopped, thinking you were with us. When he discovered you weren't, he...” Nik broke off, looking down at the table.

“Tell me,” Laurent said.

Nikandros cleared his throat before continuing, looking up to meet Laurent's clear, calm gaze. “He said that you must be off with your Akielon slave,” Nik said, very pointedly not looking at Damen. “He said that he wouldn't put anything past you, if you had ordered your slave to kill the Regent's favored pet.”

Laurent nodded, leaning back into his chair, going back to his uninterested survey of the room.

“Excuse me, Your Highness,” Nikandros said, “but you don't seem to be upset to hear it.”

“I was expecting it,” Laurent said. “It is not the first lie my uncle has spread about my character, and it certainly won't be the last.”

“So—it isn't true.”

Damen turned to Nikandros. “Of course it isn't true,” he said before Laurent could reply. He heard the sharp anger in his voice, and tried to control it. “He speaks of the same pet that I told you about, at Toulour. The Regent slit his throat himself, without a second thought, then returned to his bed without a backward glance.” He barked a laugh devoid of humor. “It was a nice touch, to include me. It wasn't exactly a secret that I was there. The only guards who knew that it was the Regent are dead.”

A tense silence followed this. “My apologies,” Nikandros said, looking over to Laurent. “I didn't mean to insinuate—”

“I do not blame you for your assumptions about my nature, Nikandros,” Laurent said cooly. “After all, I had your King enslaved at my feet. I can only imagine what you must think happened. I will admit that I was not...kind,” he said, with a private little smile for Damen. “But I can assure you that even I would not kill a child in cold blood.”

Nikandros took a long drink of wine, uneasy with the conversation. “Your uncle must be quite...unpleasant,” he said after a while.

Laurent pushed out an amused breath. His smile was a blade, sharp and bright. “You have no idea.”

Dinner was rich and delicious, the spoils of Fortaine spread among the men. Towards the end of the evening, Damen noticed Loyse approach Jord, who turned, surprised at being addressed by a noblewoman.

“Excuse me, are you Jord?” She said, her voice clear and lovely.

“Yes,” he said, rising at her gesture, then following her over to a slightly removed corner. It was too far away to hear what they were saying, but it was clear enough from Jord's face what the conversation was about.

After a few minutes, Loyse drew a creased piece of parchment from the folds of her dress, handing it to Jord, who took it and looked down at it without opening it. Loyse placed her hand gently on Jord's shoulder, then turned to go back to her seat next to her husband, leaving him to read it in private.

Looking down at it as if it were a snake waiting to bite him, Jord finally unfolded the parchment. Damen watched as each word hit Jord—it was not unlike watching Loyse read it for the first time. His face changed when he reached the end, and Damen knew that only the strict discipline of a soldier was keeping him together.

For long moments he simply stood there, tracing his fingers over the last line, as if he could feel the hand that had written it. As if that could ever be enough.

Then Jord slowly, gently folded the parchment again, tucking it into his pocket before sliding quietly out of the room. Damen stared at the door he had left through, hating that Jord was suffering alone.

He was pulled out of his thoughts by the scraping of a wooden chair leg across a stone floor next to him. He looked over as Nikandros rose, draining the contents of his cup. “If you'll excuse me,” he said, and Damen watched as he left through the same door that Jord had disappeared through minutes before.

Laurent had seen too. “Well. That's an unexpected development,” he said. He turned to Damen, amused at whatever expression he found on Damen's face. “Are you so shocked? We know better than anyone how close fighting side by side can bring two men.”

“It's been three days!” Damen said.

“It's likely that this is just the beginning of their friendship,” Laurent said. “Nikandros doesn't strike me as someone who is easily persuaded. For him to have listened to Jord at Ravenel...”

By the time their friendship has the time to grow, or turn into something else, Laurent and I will either be on our thrones or dead, and this alliance will be over. Damen couldn't stop the thought from storming through his head, an unwelcome guest. For some reason, thinking of Nikandros and Jord made it feel impossible that he and Laurent could find a way forward. He looked over at Laurent, watching him as he took a long drink from his goblet.

No. I will not give up that easily, he told himself. Laurent is not mine to keep, but there must be a way for us to... Damen didn't know how to finish that thought. To what? Meet in secret every few months, like forbidden lovers? Announce their accord as a political alliance, and hide nothing of their personal intimacy? Merge our kingdoms, the truest part of him whispered. It was done before. It can be done again. He thought of what his father would think, then quickly dismissed that thought. It did nothing to relieve the pressure that had filled his chest.

He realized that Laurent had asked him something, and, trying to shake off the uncertainty that had crept under his skin, he forced a smile on his face and turned back to his dinner.

*****

Chapter Text

The next few days passed in a whirlwind of inventories, meetings, and all the tedious minutiae of ruling that Damen hadn't missed at all during his time in Vere. Despite the fact that they stayed in the same room, slept in the same bed, he felt like he had spent no time at all alone with Laurent. There had been a few wonderful, stolen minutes that Damen had tucked into his memory, to revisit whenever Guion and Nikandros bickered over the same set of supplies or troops for the fifth time that day. His distraction had earned him more than one narrow-eyed glare from Nikandros, but Damen couldn't bring himself to care.

A noticeable increase in the volume of the current conversation drew him out of the memory of pressing Laurent against their door this morning, where they had exchanged slow, deliberate kisses until a loud knock had startled them away from each other. Laurent had laughed at the low growl of frustration that Damen hadn't been able to hold in before he flung the door open to reveal a slightly terrified servant, who had been sent to summon them to the room they now occupied with Nikandros, Jord, Jokaste, and Guion.

“I have yet to see why you are here, instead of in shackles in the cells where you belong,” Nikandros snapped at Jokaste, whose regal features remained calm and unconcerned despite his tone. “If it were up to me—”

“But it isn't up to you,” Damen broke in, looking over at Nikandros.

“Nice of you to rejoin the conversation, Damianos,” Nik said, without the bite that he had used with Jokaste, though his irritation clearly still remained. “I know there are other things you would rather be doing” —his eyes flashed over to Laurent, who merely smiled blandly at him— “but we are talking about war here. I think we all deserve to know what a traitor is doing in our midst.”

“We have come to an agreement with Lady Jokaste, Nikandros,” Laurent said. “The infidelities of the past have been put aside in the face of our common goals.”

“And would you care to share the terms of said agreement?”

“Not particularly,” Laurent said, looking Nikandros straight in the eyes. It was a battle that Laurent rarely lost, and indeed, Nikandros was the first to look away.

Jokaste leaned forward slightly. “I understand your trepidation, Nikandros, and I don't expect to have your trust anytime soon,” she said. “But I would urge you to consider the fact that I may have insight that could prove to be invaluable.”

“Such as?” Nikandros raised a brow at her, more of a challenge than a question.

“You'd be surprised the things that Kastor let slip in the privacy of darkness.” Despite everything, Damen felt a faint twist of jealousy thread through his stomach at the reminder that Jokaste had been in Kastor's bed. “The Regent's influence in the palace of Ios was extensive, even more so that you understand. The new trade route established three months before the death of the King...the fleet of advanced ships sold at an impossibly generous price to our navy...the unfamiliar servants and soldiers who appeared seemingly overnight...it was all orchestrated nearly a year in advance.”

A year. It was difficult to fathom that, while Damen had been happily living his life, blind to the hate that was festering in his brother's heart, the fate of Akielos had been unspooling around him, slowly tangling around his ankles until it brought him to his knees.

“You knew this, and yet you sat back and let it happen. You helped him,” Nikandros said, disgusted.

“I learned of it a month and a half before Theomedes died. One day I went to the physician, seeking a draught for a headache, and overheard him instructing Kastor on how to use a poison so that no one would suspect it wasn't natural. It took me nearly two weeks after that to uncover the details, to discover who he was using it on. By that time—it was too late to stop.”

“And you didn't consider mentioning the overheard conversation to anyone? We could have stopped him if we had known of it the day you discovered it!”

“You could have stopped nothing,” Jokaste said scornfully. “My word was worth very little where it mattered. Would you have listened to me if I had told you the King's son was trying to poison someone, but I didn't know who, and I had no proof?”

Nikandros didn't respond.

“That's what I thought. Let me ask you, Nikandros—why did you try to tell Damen that Kastor may be false?”

“I—” Nikandros looked troubled. “I was told by one of my soldiers that he had heard talk of an impending attempt at the throne. I had my own doubts about Kastor—I had seen the look in his eyes as he watched you fight, Damen, as he watched you interact with your father.” He turned back to Jokaste. “What's your point?”

Jokaste's eyes glittered. “Did you ever wonder why a common soldier would have such information? Did you ever question who had told him?”

Nikandros stared at Jokaste. “You? You passed the information?”

Jokaste raised a single fair eyebrow, an unspoken answer. “I knew you would never listen to me,” she said, only a hint of bitterness leaking into her voice. “And I knew that yours was the only warning Damen might take seriously. When it all came to nothing, I was forced to position myself for survival.”

Damen was suddenly tired of hearing himself spoken of as if he weren't in the room, tired of having his blind trust shown for the foolishness that it was. It did not change what was in front of them now.

“Enough,” he said roughly, looking first at Jokaste and then at Nikandros. “I can't force you to like each other, and I can't force you to trust each other. But you will tolerate each other, and if we have to have this conversation again, I can assure you that it will be unpleasant for everyone involved.”

“Akielons,” Guion sneered. “It's a wonder you can make it a week without someone stabbing you in the back.”

“Yes, it's infinitely better when your allies stab you in the shoulder, so you can see it coming,” Laurent said mildly. Guion flushed, hard, seemingly losing his desire to speak.

Jord cleared his throat. “Perhaps we should get back to the matter at hand,” he said.

Damen inclined his head towards Jord in agreement, grateful for his steady, pragmatic presence. “The Regent is in Ios. There is nothing standing between him and the rule of two kingdoms—nothing but us. Our path is not easy. He has my brother in the palm of his hand, which means he may as well be sitting on the throne himself. We have no chance of marching into the capital and emerging victorious. We must find a way to draw him out of Ios.”

“We should challenge him directly,” Nikandros said, as Damen knew he would. “We have four thousand men—more if we are able to draw some of the northern bannermen to us. Even if he uses Akielos's army, your reappearance from the dead will destabilize their faith, and men without faith cannot win a war. You know that my men are among the best, and the Veretian forces here must be used to fighting, being on the border. If the Regent refuses our challenge, he declares himself a coward before both of our countries.”

“You assume that my uncle intends to fight fair,” Laurent said to Nikandros, “and I can assure you that he has no such intentions. He would send Akielos's men to fight their own people, watch them slaughter each other, all from the safety of the palace in Ios. He knows that Damen is too honorable to be anywhere but the front lines. Even if we were to succeed, our numbers would be greatly reduced, making it all but impossible to take the capital by force. And all of this is assuming he doesn't have a trap waiting for us instead, which is at the very least a strong possibility, if not a guarantee.”

“The Prince is right,” Jokaste said. “If I were the Regent, I would love nothing more than for you to ride into a battle I wasn't even there for and get yourselves killed. If you want to do his job for him, then, by all means, proceed.”

Nikandros sighed, carding his hand through his hair in frustration. “So what, then? We sit here and wait as he redecorates the throne room?”

“Of course not,” Laurent said. “We must draw him out of Ios.”

“And how are we supposed to accomplish that?”

Laurent was quiet for a long moment, tracing the grain in the wood of the table in front of him. “If you offer him something he wants, he may be convinced to come to us.”

“No,” Damen said, but Nikandros was looking at Laurent, his brow furrowed in interest.

“And what does he want?”

“Me,” Laurent said calmly, looking up to meet Nikandros's gaze.

“No,” Damen said again, louder. “That's not an option.”

Laurent looked over at him. “It would simply be a ruse, to bring him to us. It's not as though I'm suggesting that I would actually give myself over to him.”

Movement drew Damen's eye to Jokaste, who had tilted her head, looking at Laurent with a thoughtful look on her face, as though she had just found something she had been searching for. Turning back to Laurent, Damen shook his head.

“Even if I were to consider it, which I won't, the Regent would never believe it. He knows that I would never offer you to him, no matter the trade.”

Laurent was watching him steadily. Damen looked back, his gaze implacable. This was not a compromise he was willing to make.

“Damen's right,” Jord said to Laurent. “He rode to Toulour to find you, risking everything—he would not then turn around and hand you over a week later. The Regent is many things, but foolish is not one of them.”

Nikandros sighed. “So we are back to the beginning.”

Damen looked around their small group, seeking an answer. What else would the Regent want? What would interest him enough that he would leave the relative safety of Ios and ride out to meet them? His eyes rested upon Guion, who had barely spoken a word. The whisper of a thought sparked in Damen's mind, brushing as gently as the wings of a moth just outside of understanding. He thought of the one thing that the Regent hadn't anticipated, the one thing that wasn't part of his plans—Laurent's escape from, and then control over, Fortaine.

“We all know of the Regent's treachery, of his plan to weaken the Akielon rule and take the throne for himself. We know of the plots against the Crown Prince's life, the murder of Nicaise...” Damen trailed off, looking at each of them, meeting their eyes as they listened. “But there is no person in this room whose testimony would be believed, no one who could offer a legitimate threat to the Regent.” His gaze fell to Guion. “Save one.”

He felt rather than saw as each of them realized what he was suggesting. Guion had straightened in his chair, glaring back at Damen with hate in his eyes.

“The Regent doesn't like loose ends,” Damen said. “You are a liability in our hands, the only chink in his armor through which the truth could slip out, ruining everything. To get you back, to silence you, would be a temptation that the Regent may not be able to deny.”

Damen looked over at Laurent, who was already looking at him. He sought confirmation that this might work, that he understood the Regent well enough to play this game. The expression on Laurent's face was strange, as though he was both irate that he had not thought of it and pleased that Damen had. After a long moment, he gave one short nod of his head in assent.

“This is absurd,” Guion spat. “The Regent knows that I would not testify against him, not if I value my life.”

“Perhaps. But he also knows that you are selfish, and untrustworthy, and willing to do whatever it takes to get what you want,” Laurent said silkily. “My uncle is under no misconceptions about my character—he knows that I have no qualms about exploiting those things for my own gain.”

Guion shook with rage, but he was clearly well aware of what Laurent was capable of when crossed.

“Your fate is now tied to ours, Guion,” Laurent continued. “And this is my promise to you—should my uncle emerge victorious, he will kill you and your family. Your only hope is that he is not alive on the other side of this. If you help us, if you provide supplies, troops, and the advantages that come with your title, I will ensure your survival. You will be exiled from Vere, but your family will live. Exile or death—the time has come to make your choice.”

Damen and the others watched as Guion's face drained of color. Damen could see that Guion knew Laurent spoke the truth—as soon as he was in Laurent's hands, his protection from the Regent was over. It took several minutes for him to speak, swallowing around difficult words.

“I have already lost one son to the Regent. I will not lose the rest of my family as well. I...accept your offer.”

“Good,” Laurent said. “I expect your loyalty from this moment until the day I sit upon the throne. Provide that, and my promise stands. Betray us, and I will not hesitate to let my uncle have you.”

Guion seemed to have shrunk into himself, his presence no longer powerful and proud. He nodded, looking down at his hands, clenched in his lap.

That being settled, Damen turned to Jokaste. “I know that this is...” He closed his eyes briefly before continuing. “Is there any chance left that Kastor can be won to our side? He would be a valuable tool against the Regent.”

Jokaste looked at Damen, a mixture of pity and honesty in her eyes. “I think you already know the answer to that,” she said. “I suspect that, in his heart, Kastor regrets what he has done. Despite his many attempts to prove otherwise, I don't believe he is foolish enough not to see what is happening around him. He likely knows by now that the Regent does not intend to let him rule Akielos. But he is in too deep. You know him, Damen. When he was backed into a corner during a spar he knew he was going to lose, instead of yielding, he became reckless and dangerous. He will not back down. Not now.”

Damen nodded. He had known it, but he had needed to hear it spoken out loud. If this were one of the great tales that had been told to him by his father in his childhood, the love of brothers would overcome betrayal, and Kastor would realize the error of his ways and return to Damen's side to bring victory over the Regent. But this was no tale, and there would be no easy finale. No matter how this played out, it would be at the end of swords, and only one brother would walk away alive.

Damen wondered briefly at the irony of it. Perhaps the fates had decided his punishment for killing Laurent's brother would be to lose his own as well. Perhaps they were each destined to be one half of a lost pair, a testament to what could have been and what would never be.

Damen turned to the rest of the room. “This is what I propose. We offer to give Guion over if the Regent comes himself, on grounds of our own choosing. It's likely that he will bring his own army to meet ours. There,” he turned to Nikandros, “we fight. For Akielos, and for Vere.”

It was a careful balance between Veretian deception and Akielon directness, and Damen could see that it appealed to those on both sides. Nikandros got his fight, but not on the Regent's terms. And Laurent got to outmaneuver his uncle by using the one weapon that the Regent had placed in his hands himself—Damen.

Nikandros regarded him with a thoughtful look, considering the idea. “What location would we choose for our stand? It will be impossible to move too far south with an army. You will be sought in every tavern, in every keep. And staying here would be dangerous—the Regent is unlikely to want to be seen attacking a Veretian fort, and we would be vulnerable to ambushes from the north if he did agree.”

Damen was in the middle of conjuring a mental map of the area when Laurent spoke beside him.

“Marlas,” he said, the single word like the fall of a blade. “It should end at Marlas.”

Damen stared at him, feeling the hot memory of every lash on his back, seeing Auguste's lifeless body lying at his feet. The past had never felt so close.

But he could see the cold logic in it—Marlas was a battleground that almost all of them were familiar with, less than a day's ride away, just across the border. It eliminated most of the risk that they would encounter enemies on the way, and they could arrive well before the Regent, giving them time to rest and prepare. The fort itself was large enough to house their entire army, and its walls were almost impregnable. Since they held both Fortaine and Ravenel, their only vulnerability was from the south. It was the clear choice.

“My uncle would—savor the thought of striking me down in the same place that my brother and father died,” Laurent said, and though he spoke to the room, his eyes spoke only to Damen. “It would appeal to his sense of grandeur. To him, it would be the ultimate seal on his victory. Not only that, but he could twist it to appear as though he were attempting to regain Delfeur, something that would win him much admiration from the Veretians. I think he would find it difficult to refuse.”

Damen felt it around them, the inescapable wheels of fate that had first made them enemies, then brought them together, and now was bringing them back to the place that their stories had first entwined. For a moment he couldn't breathe as he sank into the depths of Laurent's bright gaze.

“Nik,” he said, finally tearing himself away. “Can you get us Marlas? Are the men there trustworthy?”

“It is already yours,” Nikandros replied. “When they hear the news that their true King has returned, I won't even have to ask for their loyalty—they will be on their knees bowing to you before I speak. When Kastor was crowned, they almost revolted. I held them in check—barely.”

Damen nodded, slowly, then let out a long breath. “Do it, then,” he ordered.

His mind was still spinning when Nikandros voiced his final question.

“And Kastor? He has no reason to get himself involved personally. Guion is a threat to him as well, but the word of a Veretian will hold no sway over the Akielon people.”

Damen was silent, trying to think of a way to lure Kastor to them. Under ordinary circumstances, no Akielon would face the dishonor of not meeting his enemy in battle himself. But these were no ordinary circumstances, and Kastor had nothing to gain by fighting.

“Offer me to him,” Jokaste said into the silence, her words falling like shards of glass upon the table. All eyes were drawn to her.

“I hope you won't take offense from my words,” Laurent said carefully, “but I think, as things currently stand, the threat of meeting Damianos face to face with a sword in his hand may outweigh his desire to see you return to his side.”

Jokaste did not flinch away from the harsh honesty. In fact, to Damen's surprise, she smiled, and while it should have elevated her features from beautiful to radiant, Damen saw instead a force of nature, a hurricane waiting to be unleashed. It sent a shiver down his spine, and he was grateful that he was not the target—this time.

“You're right. He wouldn't risk his life for me,” she said, “if I weren't carrying his heir.”

*****

Chapter Text

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:

Dearest Uncle—

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.

Yours,
Laurent

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.

*****

Chapter Text

The next few days passed uneventfully, and though Laurent was challenged several more times to spar, there were no questions asked when he turned them down. He had proven himself to the men, and their attitude had shifted markedly towards him and the rest of the Veretians.

They were currently sitting at dinner, and Damen was happy to see the Veretians mixed in with the Akielons. He thought of the secret hope that he kept within him, that if they got through this alive, it might be possible to merge their kingdoms. What he saw in front of him told him that they stood a chance, even if it was slim. He closed his eyes, trying not to let it get away from him. He wanted it too much.

Laurent placed his goblet on the table in front of him, interrupting Damen’s thoughts, then leaned over to whisper in Damen's ear.

“Meet me in our rooms in five minutes,” he said, his breath warm against Damen's neck, heat that spread through Damen's veins. Without looking at him, Laurent rose gracefully from his seat, excusing himself with a few words to Guion, who was sitting to his right. Damen forced himself not to watch him as he left.

Nikandros was talking to him from his left, but Damen couldn't recall the conversation they had been having. He drained his goblet of wine, nodding at what seemed to be appropriate moments. Time seemed to slow, stretching out like honey as Damen waited. Finally, unable to bear it any longer, Damen made some excuse to Nikandros, interrupting him in the middle of a sentence. He stood up, jostling the table a bit in his haste. Nikandros reached out to steady his goblet of wine, shooting Damen a withering look as he left the hall.

Damen barely noticed.

Moving through the halls, Damen turned a corner and was surprised by a hand clenching the fabric of his chiton, dragging him sideways into a small alcove.

“You're late,” Laurent said. “It's been six minutes.”

Damen smiled down at him, bracing his hands on either side of Laurent's head, boxing him in against the stone. “So you came to retrieve me?”

“I got tired of waiting.”

Damen leaned down to kiss him, pressing him against the wall. Damen usually wasn't one for public displays, but he couldn't find it in himself to care if anyone was looking right now. Laurent's mouth parted easily under his own, and for a few minutes, they lost themselves.

Laurent pushed Damen back, and he was pleased to see a light flush across Laurent's skin, his hair slightly disheveled. Laurent shoved a bundle of fabric into Damen's arms.

“Put these on.”

Damen looked down at the clothing and groaned as he caught sight of laces. He had no idea why Laurent wanted him to change into Veretian clothing, but he looked up and caught the bright spark of mischief in Laurent's eyes. It was one he recognized from Nesson, from the campfire, from small moments where Laurent felt free enough to be himself.

He would do whatever Laurent wanted to keep that spark alive.

*****

Half an hour later, Damen found himself in an alleyway, trying in vain to loosen the restrictive collar of his jacket. They were in the small township that crowned one of the hills a short ways from Fortaine. Laurent had refused to tell him where they were going, so Damen had simply followed.

He looked out at the large, open square, filled with people despite the late hour. There were merchants selling silks and jewelry, food and drinks, handmade toys, and many more items that Damen couldn't identify from a distance. Children ran through the crowd, laughter threading warmly through the low hum of conversation. And everywhere, there were lights. Torches, lanterns, flickering candles in the windows. A large fire burned in the center of the square, and dancers spun around it, laughing.

Everyone, adults and children, even the merchants, were wearing masks. They were enchanting, beautiful and colorful, the flickering light of the fire making them seem almost alive. Damen watched from the alley, entranced.

“It's called la fête des étoiles,” Laurent said, following Damen's gaze over the crowd. “The Festival of Stars. It's celebrated only among the commoners, though I don't know why. It has always been my favorite. When I was a child, I begged my father to take us, but he said that it was not our kind of celebration. Apparently 'our kind of celebration' meant stuffy dinners and balls full of overdressed, egotistical aristocrats.”

Damen looked over at Laurent, who was leaning against the wall, arms crossed, as he surveyed the celebration. He glanced over at Damen, a small smile pulling up the corners of his mouth.

“Naturally, that made me even more determined to see it. So every year I sneaked out of the palace and into the city, and for one night, I didn't have to be Prince Laurent. I could just be Laurent, another anonymous mask in the crowd.” The light played across Laurent's face, and Damen couldn't look away.

“Auguste caught me climbing down a trellis one year when I was ten, and I thought that was the end of it. But instead of turning me over to our father, he insisted on coming with me. When he saw the lights, he fell in love with it too. From then on it was our secret, and each year we had more and more fun coming up with increasingly elaborate covers for our absence.” Laurent was quiet for a moment. “This is the first one I’ve attended in six years.”

Damen loved these glimpses into Laurent's childhood, and loved even more that Laurent felt comfortable enough to share them with him. He was sure that no one else had heard these stories, and if anyone remembered the carefree, mischievous child Laurent had been, that memory had been long buried beneath the cold, distant facade that Laurent now presented to the rest of the world.

“When you become King, you can celebrate it at court,” Damen said. Laurent looked over at him with an unreadable expression on his face. “After all, you'll be able to do whatever you want.”

Laurent gazed at him thoughtfully, then shook his head, looking back out at the square. “No,” he said. “No, it should stay the way it is. These people don't have much that belongs only to them. The court would twist it, use it as an excuse to parade their wealth, to outdo each other. They wouldn't find the simple joy in it. Look at them,” he said, gesturing to the celebration. “I would not corrupt that.”

Damen felt affection thread through his chest, felt the deep crack in his heart widen.

“Besides, then I'd have to be King Laurent, with guards and restrictions and rules,” Laurent said, the mischief sparking across his face again. “And what would be the fun of that?”

Without warning, he flicked a gold coin over to Damen, which Damen caught on instinct. “What's this for?”

“We'll be needing masks,” Laurent said, as if it were obvious. “Even here, I'm quite recognizable.”

Damen shook his head with a smile, then moved into the light.

He had to admit, it was magical. There were few things like this in Akielos, though he supposed that it was possible the commoners had something similar and he had simply been ignorant of it, caught up in the privilege of being a Prince. He threaded his way through the throngs of people, smiling and nodding at them. One child ran straight into his leg, looking up at him with wide eyes before running off again. Damen laughed, unable to contain his joy. He could see why Laurent loved it so much.

He wandered among the booths, admiring the wares, until he came to one with the masks he was looking for. They were beautifully crafted, elaborate and lovely. Damen told as much to the merchant, who smiled proudly. There was one made with feathers that shifted from blue to green depending on the angle of the light, with long peacock feathers meant to arch over one's head. Another sparkled with beads, each one placed carefully by hand. A third had curling filigree horns coming out of its feathered sides.

His eyes were caught by one in particular, made entirely of small white feathers, with fine gold wire spun like lace across and around it, twisting into loops and curls. It reminded Damen of the circlet that Laurent sometimes wore, subtle but beguiling, intricate and elegant. It was perfect.

For himself, he chose a black mask outlined with red ribbon, unassuming but rich. How typically Akielon of you, he heard Laurent say in his head. It was true—he had been drawn to its simplicity, its plain beauty.

He paid the merchant with gold, which was much more than the cost of the masks, but Damen refused the coins the merchant offered as change. His joy at being here, with Laurent, was worth so much more than the gold. The merchant was overcome with gratitude, and Damen's joy grew, knowing that the single coin would change the course of the merchant's life, and that of his family.

He meandered back to the alleyway where Laurent was still hidden, putting on his own mask as he went. When he turned into the alley, he bowed theatrically, handing over Laurent's mask. He was rewarded with a laugh, clear and ringing, such a rarity from Laurent that it had his heart pounding.

Laurent looked down at the mask, turning it in his hands to examine it. “It's beautiful,” he said. “Perhaps the most beautiful one I've ever had.”

Damen took it from him, gesturing for him to turn around so he could place it over Laurent's eyes. “That must be why it reminded me of you,” he said into Laurent's ear, tying the ribbon over Laurent's hair.

Laurent turned around. The white and gold framed Laurent's eyes, accentuating the striking blue of them. The mask drew Damen's focus down to Laurent's mouth, soft and full, and he couldn't resist pressing a slow, lingering kiss to it. Pulling away, he held out his hand.

“Shall we?”

Laurent curled their fingers together, and, feeling as though a thousand possibilities waited for them, Damen pulled him into the light.

*****

For the first time since he had stumbled into Nikandros' camp, Damen was anonymous again. After all that had happened recently, putting aside his identity as the Akielon King for a night felt like shedding a heavy cloak. The gleam in Laurent's eyes showed that he felt the same way.

The night was warm around them as they wandered the square. They bought food and drinks from one of the merchants—it was delicious in the way that modest food in a happy setting is delicious, unassuming and simple. The spiced wine sent a pleasant flush through Damen's limbs.

They were occasionally drawn into lively exchanges with the strangers around them, and it was refreshing to talk about the simplicities of daily life—crops, weather, the good-natured gossip of friends. There was no talk of wars, no plots or threats. The townspeople spoke to Damen and Laurent as they would to their neighbors, without the deference and averted gazes that were the curse of being royalty.

Laurent was interrupted in the middle of responding to an inquiry about his rich clothing when he lurched forward. Looking over, Damen saw that a child had stumbled into the back of his legs, apparently having been in a game with some children nearby. The child got his feet under him, then turned and looked up at Laurent.

“Excuse me,” he said, looking down in embarrassment, clearly expecting to be reprimanded.

Laurent knelt down, bracing his forearm on his knee as he leaned forward towards the boy. “That's quite all right,” he said. “What's your name?”

“Alexandre,” the boy replied, looking up through his lashes at Laurent before looking down again.

“Nice to meet you, Alexandre. I'm....Charls.” Laurent made a show of reaching out for a handshake, which the boy took after a moment's hesitation. “What were you playing?”

Laurent's genuine interest seemed to win out over Alexandre's shyness, as he finally looked directly at Laurent. “We were playing Prince's Guard. It's when someone gets to be the Prince and the others get to protect him from the uncivilized Akielon soldiers!”

Damen couldn't help but laugh, and Laurent glanced at him with mirth in his eyes before turning back to Alexandre. “That sounds like fun. And who were you: an honorable Veretian soldier or a barbaric Akielon?”

“I was the Prince!” Alexandre said, puffing his chest out proudly. “Except one of my friends let an Akielon through and that's why I fell over. Next time he's not allowed to be part of the Prince's Guard.”

“That's very wise of you,” Laurent said in mock seriousness. “You want to be able to trust your Guard at all times. You know, you do look remarkably like the Prince.”

It wasn't true—Alexandre had sandy hair, his limbs scrawny, and Damen could see a scattering of freckles across his tan skin where his cheeks weren't hidden by his mask. But Laurent's white lie clearly pleased the boy immensely.

“You've seen the Prince? Like in real life?” Alexandre's eyes were big beneath his mask.

“I—yes, I met him once in Arles,” Laurent said, the question catching him off guard. “It was several years ago. But he is very handsome.”

Damen snorted. It earned him a glare from Laurent.

The child leaned in conspiratorially, looking around as if to make sure no one else was listening. “They say he is staying at the fort,” he said, unable to contain his excitement at the thought of it.

“Really?” Laurent said, feigning shock. “How do you know?”

“Didn't you see the starburst banner flying? Everyone knows what that means!”

Laurent nodded solemnly. “You're right, how silly of me. So, what do you think he's doing here?”

“Well...” Alexandre looked down, biting his lip. “The rumors are that he did awful things, that he's betrayed us to the Akielons and he's marching south to let their army in.” He looked back up at Laurent. “But I don't believe it.”

“You don't?”

“No. The Prince would never do that. My father says that the rumors aren't to be believed, that the Prince will soon be our King, and we owe him our trust. When we play Prince's Guard, everyone wants to be Prince Laurent! But I always get to be him. Maybe he'll come to visit...maybe I could meet him!”

Damen felt a warmth that had nothing to do with the fair weather as Laurent smiled, leaning in closer, lowering his voice. “You never know...maybe he's here tonight.”

Alexandre's eyes got wide as he looked around the crowd. “Do you think?”

“I've seen stranger things,” Laurent said, looking at Damen, the private glint in his eyes just for him.

Alexandre's limbs were almost shaking with the thought of it. “I'm going to go look!” With a distracted wave goodbye, the boy ran off into the crowd.

Laurent stayed crouched down, watching him go with a smile. Damen thought he could see longing in his face, as though he wanted to run after the boy himself and join in his simple games. Finally, Laurent rose, turning to Damen.

Damen raised an eyebrow. “So you've met the Prince?”

“I have,” Laurent responded dryly.

“Very handsome, huh?”

“In my unbiased opinion,” Laurent said, the corner of his mouth twitching. “You don't agree?”

“Hmmm,” Damen said. “I wouldn't say 'handsome' is the right word.”

Even with the mask obscuring most of his face, Damen could tell that Laurent had raised an eyebrow. He could picture his expression perfectly. “Oh? And what is the right word?”

Damen tilted his head, pretending to consider. “I suppose some would say 'arrogant,'” he said. “And others might say 'cold.' Though I don't think those are right, either.”

“And you?” Laurent said, his eyes bright beneath the white feathers. “What would you say, then?”

Damen could feel the affection that softened his features as he looked at Laurent, and he was helpless to stop it. He reached out, his fingers brushing Laurent's cheek where it wasn't covered by his mask.

“I would say that whatever beauty is attributed to him by historians and poets could not possibly hope to match what it is to be in his presence. Even the greatest artists who attempted to capture his features would fail. To say he is lovely would be as understated as saying that the moon is bright, as saying that the stars are plentiful.”

The playful, teasing atmosphere between them was gone. Laurent's lips had parted slightly in surprise, his chest rising and falling quickly with his breaths. Though they were surrounded by people, though the crowd was not quiet, it was as if they were alone in this golden, warm courtyard. As if they were alone in the world.

“I would say that those who say he is cold have never burned beneath his touch," Damen said, his voice soft and private. "And those who call him arrogant have never seen him kneel down to look a child in the eye as his equal.”

Laurent looked down, his skin flushed. “I—I can't think, when you...why do you say things like that?”

Damen brushed his knuckles beneath Laurent's chin, lifting his face so that Laurent had to look at him. “I say them because they are true, and because I don't think anyone has ever said them to you before.” The flicker in Laurent's eyes told him he was right. “I say them because you deserve them. And I will keep saying them until you believe them.”

Laurent swallowed hard. Damen could feel the tension in him, could feel how difficult it was for him to keep eye contact, but he did not look away. He reached up with hesitant fingers to brush a curl away from Damen's forehead.

“Thank you,” he said finally, the words clearly hard for him to get out. He leaned up and kissed Damen, and it reminded Damen of their first kiss, tentative and soft, a brush of warm lips and a shared breath. He would never tire of it, for however long he was lucky enough to have it.

He felt Laurent smile against his mouth, and broke away.

“What is it?”

“I was just thinking of the chaos that would ensue if these people knew that the Veretian Prince was kissing the Akielon King in the middle of their town square,” Laurent said. “Can you imagine the gossip?”

“I can, actually,” Damen said wryly. “I heard quite enough even before people knew who I was, even before I was sharing your bed. I think our anonymity here is for the best.”

His attention was caught by the flurry of movement from one side of the square, and he angled himself above the crowd around him to see what it was. Laurent had also turned, though, being considerably shorter than Damen, he couldn’t see much.

“It seems as though they are passing something around.” Whatever the objects were, they were spreading, each person taking one before handing them on.

He looked down when he heard the quiet, happy sigh that Laurent let out. “They’re candles,” he said, smiling. “This is my favorite part of the festival.”

“What are they for?”

La fête des étoiles is a night of secrets,” Laurent said, “and truths. Each person takes an unlit candle. Every year the town chooses a gardien des chandelles, a Keeper of the Candles. It is a coveted privilege, one that is competed for fiercely. The Keeper lights their candle first, and then lights someone else’s from the flame of their own. Each candle is lit from another’s, throughout the crowd until they are all lit. Then all the other lights are put out—the center fire, the lanterns, the torches...everything but the candles.”

They had reached Damen and Laurent by then, long, thin tapers of white wax. Damen took two, handing one to Laurent, then passed the rest to his left as Laurent continued.

“Once your candle is lit, you get to choose someone to blow it out. In return, you have to tell that person a truth, a secret that you have told no one else. Many people keep secrets all year, to divulge only on this night. Some use it to confess sins that weigh heavily on their hearts, while others admit their fears. The commoners see it as a night of release, a chance to lighten the burdens that we carry the rest of the year.”

“But everyone is wearing masks. How do you know who you’re telling your truth to?”

“That’s rather the point. Truth is a hard thing to tell. Some people want a chance to tell their truth completely anonymously, in which case they pick a stranger. They’ll never know who they told, and the person they told will never know where it came from. Others, though, want their truth to be given to a specific person, but they can’t bring themselves to say it by the light of day. The only requirement is that they tell somebody—the rest is up to them.”

Damen thought there was something beautiful about giving up something so personal to another person, stranger or not. He understood why Laurent loved it—there had been no one for him to confide in, and he had plenty of secrets to live with. It must be a profound relief for him to be able to share even one of them, without the fear of it being used against him.

“Do Veretians have to practice telling the truth?” Damen said, trying to keep a straight face. “I’m sure it doesn’t come naturally.”

“It’s good that you aren’t still pretending to be a common soldier,” Laurent shot back.

“And what if I were?” Damen said.

“I’m fairly certain it’s the only thing you’ve ever lied about,” Laurent replied, his gaze playful. “You could barely keep it hidden even when revealing the truth would have gotten you killed. Imagine telling a baker in a small town in Vere that you’re secretly the Akielon King.”

Damen laughed, earning a self-satisfied smile from Laurent. He was hopelessly charmed by this Laurent, open and free and happy. It was as if the weight had been lifted from his shoulders, his uncle forgotten, his throne set aside, the candlelight bringing out something honest and young in his face.

Laurent’s candle was lit by a teenaged girl beside him, wearing a mask woven with every color under the sun. Laurent turned to Damen and, with a conspiratorial smile, passed the flame on to him. Damen turned to his left, leaning down and tilting his candle to light that of a young boy in a dragon mask.

“When do we blow them out?” Damen asked quietly, leaning over to Laurent.

“When every candle is lit,” Laurent murmured. “When the rest of the lights go out.”

Damen watched the fire spread, a ripple of flame dancing across the crowd, until suddenly the middle fire was extinguished with a hiss. The torches and lanterns around the outer edge of the square were doused, one by one, leaving them in a pool of warm, flickering light, holding back the dark.

An anticipatory hush fell over the crowd as the last lantern was put out. It was so quiet, Damen could hear the hiss of the wind—and then he realized that it wasn’t the wind he was hearing, but the soft, muted sigh of a hundred whispers, as people began to tell their truths.

Candle after candle was blown out as he watched, and there was something powerful about it, about a vivacious festival made quiet and a bright courtyard made dark as these people confided in strangers and friends, family and lovers. Damen could almost feel the lightness that came with it—as if the secrets they told were lifting from their hearts, tangling with the tendrils of smoke that came from the newly-extinguished candles, to be lost in the warmth of the night air.

He turned to Laurent, who was already looking at him. He was watching Damen’s expression carefully, in the way that one does when they share something they love and worry that the other will not love it too. Damen smiled, and Laurent relaxed.

“So. Is it time for me to blow out your candle?”

Laurent regarded him with an imperious tilt to his head. “Who said that I was going to give my truth to you? I was thinking of finding Alexandre—he seemed the trustworthy sort.”

“Oh, I see. Go, then,” Damen said, attempting the same unconcerned tone.

Laurent let a smile drift across his face, and he lifted his candle, as if he were offering up some part of himself. And, Damen supposed, he was.

He drew a breath in, then blew the candle out, watching as the blue-gray smoke curled and danced upwards in the still air. It felt like the breath taken before a wave overtakes you, like the moment before you drift to sleep—one of the many infinite, ethereal moments that hid in the ordinary, pockets of time that held you, immobile, as you wondered what awaited you on the other side.

Laurent moved closer, leaning up so that Damen, and only Damen, could hear him.

“For six years I’ve been afraid—afraid of my uncle, afraid to trust anyone, afraid of the day I would have to face you. And then you showed up and...and now I’m even more afraid. I’m afraid that I’ll lose you, and have to go back to being alone. And though I’ve faced all else that my life has chosen to put in my path, I’m not sure I could face that. I don’t want to be alone anymore.”

Damen’s breath caught in his throat. He knew what it must cost for Laurent to admit that he was afraid, to be so vulnerable in a world that had only ever been hard and cruel. He had been alone for so long he had convinced himself that it had been his choice, that he didn’t need anybody else. For him to confess that he didn't want to do it all on his own anymore...it was as if he had taken down the last of his walls, as if he had dismantled it brick by brick himself.

And there was too much to say, and Damen couldn’t say it, so he simply held his candle out to Laurent. There were only a few candles still lit, darkness surrounding them, held at bay only by Damen’s lit candle. The flickering light threw shadows across Laurent’s mask, making it dance with gold and pearl.

Laurent’s eyes didn’t leave his as he leaned in. With a soft exhale, he blew out the candle, and the darkness it had been holding back flooded between them.

“Your truth, then, please,” Laurent said, and Damen could hear the tentative smile in his voice, even if he couldn’t see it.

Damen leaned down, finding Laurent’s ear in the dark. He swore Laurent would be able to feel his heart beating, battering against his ribs as though it were a caged animal trying to get out.

“I thought that all I wanted was to regain my throne, to save Akielos. But if you asked it of me, I would turn my back on it all. And that scares me, because it can only mean one thing.” Damen paused, gathering himself before continuing. “It can only mean that I’ve fallen in love with you. I’m in love with you, Laurent.”

It was a truth that Damen hadn’t even let himself examine too closely, keeping it out of sight deep within him. Nikandros and Jokaste had both seen it before he could acknowledge it to himself. But when he had found Laurent in that cell, with the knife in his shoulder...something had shifted, a veil drawn back, and there was no denying it anymore. In that moment he had felt what it would be like without Laurent in his life, and he was terrified of ever having to feel that again. Whatever it took, Damen would find a way for them to be together.

He felt Laurent freeze beside him, and then let out a shaky breath against Damen’s neck. He pulled back from Damen, and Damen simultaneously wished he could see his face and was glad he couldn’t. Even after Laurent’s confession, there was a small, irrational part of his mind that told him his feelings were one-sided, that Laurent didn’t feel the same way. He forced the feeling down as he waited in the dark.

“I—I'm in love with you too, Damianos,” Laurent finally replied quietly, and deep within Damen something shifted and settled, the final movement of a rockslide before it comes to rest.

As the last candle went out, Damen reached out for Laurent, his heart light but full, knowing he would never, as long as he lived, forget this night.

And in the darkness, as Damen pulled Laurent close, their only witnesses were the stars.

Chapter Text

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.

Almost.

“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.

“Damen...faster...”

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.

Chapter Text

The message came at dawn.

A knock on the door had Laurent instantly awake and rising, and Damen, stirred by his movement, sat up as Laurent pulled on clothes, not bothering with the laces. Damen ran a hand over his face, trying to rub the sleep from his eyes, as Laurent went to the door.

The messenger looked exhausted. It was clear that he had ridden through the night, perhaps for several nights, to make it back to Fortaine as quickly as possible. He handed the sealed message to Laurent.

“Your Highness. I brought it as soon as I could.”

“You did well, thank you,” Laurent said, staring down at the parchment without opening it for several long moments. Looking back up at the messenger, he said, “Go, rest and restore yourself. You have our gratitude.”

With a bow, his shoulders sagging slightly with relief, the messenger departed. Laurent closed the door, still staring down at the parchment. His hair, tousled with sleep, fell forward, hiding his eyes from Damen. Then, with a sharp movement, Laurent broke the seal and opened the message, standing completely still as he read the words that would determine the fate of their two countries.

After several long minutes, long enough that Damen was sure Laurent had read it more than once, Laurent turned and walked over to the bed, sitting down on the edge of it and handing the message to Damen.

Nephew,

It is unbecoming for a prince to use threats and hostages in place of honesty and diplomacy. Then again, you are no longer a prince but a traitor, and therefore I suppose I can expect no more from you. Nevertheless, I will indulge you this last time, if only to prove, for once and for all, that you are unfit to rule a kingdom.

An interesting choice for a rendezvous—though I imagine Damianos will feel right at home.

We will meet you on the fields of Marlas five days after the summer solstice, where justice shall at last be served.

It was signed by both the Regent and Kastor, and underneath their names, they had titled themselves “King of Vere” and “King of Akielos.”

Damen folded the parchment, hiding the words from sight. It infuriated him, to see those titles laid out so brazenly on the page. He set it aside, looking up at Laurent, who had watched him as he read. His face was calm and blank, any emotion carefully hidden.

“Five days after solstice,” Damen said softly. “We have one week before they arrive at Marlas.”

Laurent nodded without a word.

Damen shifted forward and brought his hand up to brush Laurent’s hair off of his forehead. Even now, after everything, Laurent’s uncle had the power to silence him, to push him back behind his walls, to make him think he was alone. Damen would not allow that to happen. Those walls had cost them both to tear down, and he would not see Laurent retreat behind them again. Laurent was afraid of being alone, but he wasn’t alone. Not anymore.

“Tell me what you are thinking,” he said, and Laurent closed his eyes, leaning into Damen’s touch. He let out a long breath, and Damen waited, giving him the time he needed.

“I’m thinking that I’m tired,” Laurent finally replied, opening his eyes, “of allowing him to get inside my head. It’s always been the next step, the next game, the next countermove. But this is it. It’s almost a relief, in a way—in one week, it’ll be over. Either I will be dead, or he will. I’m so very tired.”

Damen brought his fingers down to cup Laurent’s cheek. “I will only allow one of those outcomes,” he said.

A flicker of a smile passed over Laurent’s lips. “I’ve no doubt that you’re stubborn enough to convince death itself to listen to you,” he said, “though it may be out of even your grasp.”

Damen smiled, but his voice was resolute when he replied. “I don’t leave that battlefield if you don’t,” he said. “If the Regent wants you, I hope he’s prepared to go through my sword.”

The look in Laurent’s eyes was complicated, and it was a revelation, still, that Laurent allowed what he was feeling to show on his face in Damen’s presence. There was dread there, and gratitude, and something else that Damen couldn’t quite identify. Damen pressed his thumb to Laurent’s forehead, smoothing out the furrow that had carved itself there.

“Come back to bed,” he said gently. “We have time. I don’t think anyone will begrudge us a few more hours to ourselves.”

Laurent took a deep breath, then smiled as he let it out. He crawled in beside Damen, shifting until his head was tucked against Damen’s chest. It had come to be his favorite place to rest, and when Damen had noticed his preference for it and mentioned it, Laurent had told him that listening to the steady beat of Damen’s heart calmed him. Before Damen could comment on how uncharacteristically sentimental that was, Laurent had then immediately followed that up by saying that they couldn’t very well switch places—it would be as absurd as a horse resting its head on a cat.

Damen ran his fingers gently along Laurent’s arm, his back, through his hair, until he felt Laurent drift reluctantly into sleep. He laid awake a long time, not wanting to miss this last bit of tranquility. The morning light crept over them, Laurent curled tight to his side. When they rose, they would have to begin preparations to depart, and the tides of war would wash over them, sweeping them away. They would have to take inventories, create strategies, organize their men. There would be no more lazy afternoon lovemaking, no more evenings spent in the company of friends, drinking wine and laughing. Their time of peace was over.

So they would sleep. And then they would ride to Marlas, and to whatever fate awaited them in the bitter fields where this had all begun.

*****

“I grow old, waiting for you.”

Damen smiled, his back to Laurent, who was already mounted on his horse. Laurent was calm as ever, but his horse shifted from hoof to hoof, betraying the edge that it must feel in Laurent’s limbs.

“Then you should thank me,” Damen said, “for bringing you closer to coming of age and becoming King.”

Damen cinched his saddle tighter, checking the packs one last time. They had only been able to stall in bed for so long, the mid-morning light finally betraying them to the reality that awaited them outside their door. The Regent’s message had set the fort into motion, a flurry of activity that overtook them all.

It would take three days to prepare the army to move to Marlas, but something about the thought of waiting had Damen’s skin itching. So, after much back and forth, it had been decided that he and Laurent would ride out for Marlas that afternoon, and the army would rejoin them when they were ready to march.

Nikandros didn’t like it—Damen knew he wouldn’t—but, after voicing his several objections, he had eventually yielded to Damen’s command. His final effort had been to try to convince Damen to take a contingent of men with them, but Damen had struck that down as well.

“We ride through safe countryside, to a fort that is under our control and less than a day away,” he had told Nik. “The Regent and my brother are days away still.”

“You don’t know that,” Nik had responded seriously.

Damen was quiet for a moment, considering. “No, I don’t,” he admitted. He looked over at Laurent.

Laurent regarded him steadily, then turned to Nikandros. “We will take seven men,” he said. “No more.”

And so they had found themselves in the courtyard, surrounded by a small group of men. Lazar and Huet were among them, the rest unknown to Damen. Jord and Nikandros were needed at Fortaine, to ready the troops.

Damen mounted his horse, looking around him one last time. He didn’t know when, if ever, he would return to Fortaine. He couldn’t say that it had been kind to them, but he would never forget the weeks they had spent here. Things had changed, irrevocably, within these walls.

Damen’s eye caught on the starburst banner flying from one of the crenelations, snapping in the wind. A sudden need came over Damen, a need to protect that banner and everything it stood for.

He looked at Laurent, who nodded at him, touching his heels to his horse, leading them out of the courtyard. Damen rode forward to catch him, and side by side they rode through the gate of Fortaine, the rest of their men trailing behind them.

The time had come for them to return to Marlas.

*****

Despite the uncertainty that awaited them, Damen felt a weight lift from his heart as they rode, the wind combing through his hair, the sun strong on his skin. Laurent was a shining figurehead beside him, regal and graceful as they sped over the countryside.

Although they had agreed to take the men with them, Damen had asked Lazar to spread the men out, and so, as much as they could be, Damen and Laurent were alone. He knew the men were just out of sight, riding to either side and behind them, but it was a small comfort to be given this time to themselves.

If Laurent was reluctant to return to Marlas, it was not apparent in the way he held himself. They rode easily through the fields, making good time as the sun arched across the sky. As for Damen, he wasn’t sure what he was feeling—his memories of Marlas were now so tangled with the events of the last few months that it was difficult to discern the complex knot that seemed to be lodged in his stomach.

He was pulled out of his thoughts as Laurent turned his horse abruptly in front of Damen’s, stopping him short. Damen was about to ask what was wrong, but he saw the glint in Laurent’s eyes, mischievous and bright.

“You know, I’m quite a good rider,” Laurent said, circling Damen.

“I’m aware,” Damen said, raising his eyebrows.

“And despite your size,” Laurent continued loftily, “your own skill is proficient enough.”

“Thank you,” Damen said after a brief pause.

Laurent came up beside Damen. His smile held his challenge. “Shall we?”

Damen looked at him for a long moment, then, without responding, kicked his horse into a gallop.

Laurent had been prepared for it, and was mere seconds behind him. The simple thrill of race rushed through Damen, overtaking his trepidation at the thought of returning to Marlas, clearing his head and setting his heart racing. Leave it to Laurent to know exactly what he needed.

Laurent had overtaken him, his lighter frame lending him the advantage. Damen had to admit that Laurent’s skill may very well be better than his own—it was something that Damen did when necessary, but Laurent rode because he loved it, and that made all the difference. Damen suspected that it had been his only means of escaping the churning nest of vipers in Arles, a brief respite where he could feel like himself.

Laurent was now several paces ahead of Damen, his hair tangled in the wind, a fierce smile on his face as he looked back triumphantly at Damen. Damen smiled back, unable to feel like he had lost as long as Laurent continued to look so happy, so free. They rode through a small valley, trees cresting either side, the grass brushing their calves as they raced.

It was only luck that caused the arrow to miss.

A last-second shift of the wind, a slight veer as Laurent turned away from Damen, a simple miscalculation from the bowman—had anything been different, the arrow would have found its target in Laurent’s chest, instead of burying itself in the dirt just shy of his horse.

Damen was instantly on alert, pulling his horse up short and scanning the treeline around them. Laurent’s horse wheeled away from the sound of the arrow, rearing, forcing Laurent to gather the reins in hand, fighting to bring her back under his control.

Stupid, Damen swore as he sought out their attackers. I should have been paying attention. He had been so caught up in the moment, he had allowed himself to forget his surroundings, to forget the deadly game they were in the middle of. He should have known better than to think they could get to Marlas unchallenged.

Damen’s eyes found the archer, sheltered in the trees to their right. He watched as the archer raised his bow again, aiming for Laurent. He turned to warn him, only to find that Laurent’s eyes were on the archer too, wary and ready. There was nothing either of them could do—the man was too far away. They would have to dodge.

A whistle and a thud had Damen spinning on his horse, as another arrow landed in the dirt behind him. His eyes tracked towards where it had flown from, finding a second archer in the trees on their other side. Damen’s heart sank. If there were two of them, there were certainly more.

They had ridden straight into an ambush.

Before Damen could solidify his plan, which consisted only of a vague idea of protecting Laurent, another figure rode from the treeline, towards the first archer—but this was not another attacker. Lazar rode hard towards the archer, who didn’t turn in time, and cut him down. Damen turned in time to watch Huet do the same to the second archer. Damen had forgotten about the seven men that were with them, and, for a moment, hope flared in his chest.

The relief was short lived.

From the trees on either side of them streamed twenty or more men, the dirt rising in a cloud as it was kicked up under their hooves. Damen looked over at Laurent, who drew his sword, his expression resolute. Damen drew his own sword, positioning himself with his back to Laurent.

The other men they had brought with them were speeding towards them, but they wouldn’t get there in time. Damen cursed himself for sending them off, just so he could be alone with Laurent. Well, they were certainly alone now, for all the good it was going to do them.

Damen braced himself as the first of the men approached, raising his sword.

“First to eight wins?”

Damen looked in disbelief behind him to Laurent, before turning back to face the men. “What?”

“Whoever kills eight men first wins. The prize is winner’s choice…if you think you can keep up.”

With that, the men were on them. Damen lost himself in the clang of swords, in the flood of adrenaline that spurred him on. Men fell before him, and then Lazar, Huet, and the rest were in the fray, drawing some of the attackers away from Damen and Laurent.

A man broke away from the fight, turning and riding towards the treeline. Damen looked over at Laurent, who cut the throat of the man in front of him, then nodded at Damen. “I’m fine, go,” he said. “He cannot be allowed to return to my uncle.”

Damen took a quick stock of the situation. Most of their attackers were dead, though Damen saw with regret that two of their own men were on the ground as well, unmoving. Laurent and the remaining five men should be able to dispatch the rest.

Damen turned and sped after the retreating man, leaning over his horse’s neck as he slowly gained ground. The man looked behind him, seeing Damen, and turned abruptly, speeding towards the trees. Damen had to catch him before he lost him in the maze of the forest.

His horse was drenched in sweat by the time Damen caught the man. With a grunt, Damen drove his sword into the man’s side. He slid from his mount, falling to the ground with a heavy thump. His horse galloped away, and Damen pulled his own to a stop, making sure the man was dead before turning around.

Laurent was fighting one of the last men who remained horseback, the flash of steel glinting in the light. Damen wasn’t worried about that—he knew Laurent’s skill, knew that one-on-one there were very few men who posed a legitimate threat to him.

That wasn’t what stopped him cold.

What had his heart thundering, his breath freezing in his lungs, was the man riding from the other side of the small valley, his target clear. Lazar and the rest of the men had spread out over the course of the fight, none of them noticing the threat. Damen’s field of vision narrowed to the lone man who was speeding towards Laurent, unseen as Laurent fought off his other attacker, everything else fading away from his awareness.

Kicking his heels into the sides of his mount, Damen leapt forward, spurring his horse on as quickly as it could go. The distance closed between them, as Laurent cut down the man he had been fighting.

Damen shouted, trying to warn Laurent, but Laurent merely looked up at Damen, the distance too great for him to understand. The man behind Laurent raised his sword, still a couple of lengths away from Laurent, but closing in fast.

It wasn’t going to be enough. He was going to be too late.

With nothing else to do, Damen drew his sword, hefting it to shoulder height and judging the changing distance as they moved. It was a shot in the dark, a wild, reckless hope that this would succeed. He was just as likely to hit Laurent or his horse as he was the attacker, but it was a risk he had to take.

With a massive effort, Damen drew back the sword and threw it.

The seconds that passed as the sword flew through the air felt endless. Damen could only watch and pray his aim had been true.

His sword took the man in the stomach, the force of it knocking him off his horse. His foot caught in the stirrup, and the horse, panicked, turned and reared. A hoof struck out, catching the man in the throat, knocking him to the ground as his horse fled. Damen let out the breath he had been holding. It was over.

Laurent had turned, his eyes wide, taking in the dead man and the fleeing horse behind him. He looked to Damen, still several lengths away, and then back at the sword protruding from the man’s stomach. He blinked several times, not moving as Damen joined him at his side.

“That was….”

“I had no other choice. I was too far away,” Damen said, breathing hard from exertion and fear.

Laurent looked back up to him. “You are aware that a sword is generally not a throwing weapon, are you not?”

“It is when I need it to be.”

Laurent’s eyebrows lifted and he laughed, a breathy, surprised sound that lifted the worry from Damen’s chest. He forced himself to slow his breathing, trying to tame his erratic heartbeat. The men were dead, and none of them had escaped to bring word to the Regent. Laurent was safe.

“Assassins,” Laurent said, looking around him at the dead men. “How typical of my uncle. I had thought he might get creative at the end, but apparently, I gave him too much credit.”

Lazar rode up beside them. He was bleeding from a long, thin scratch on his arm, but it didn’t appear to be serious. “Your Highness...Your Majesty. Are you both all right? We came as quickly as we could.”

Damen nodded. “Thank you, Lazar. The fault was mine for sending you away.” He looked down at the bodies of the two men they had lost. Their deaths were on him, and his stubborn pride.

Lazar cleared his throat. “That was quite the throw,” he said, looking down at the man Damen had killed. “Are all Akielons so...”

“No,” Laurent interjected, smiling. His eyes were warm as they rested on Damen. “They’re not.”

*****

The sky had turned a dusty orange when they rode around a final stand of trees. Laurent, who had been in the lead, paused, Damen pulling his horse to a stop as he came up beside him. The men behind them halted as well, though they left some distance, allowing Damen and Laurent a moment of privacy. For several minutes, there was only the sound of the wind dancing through the leaves and the song of birds settling in for the evening.

“Welcome back,” Laurent said without looking at him, “to Marlas.”

Damen didn’t know what he had expected to see—perhaps the dirt, still churned with blood and the hooves of a thousand horses, or the bodies of long-dead men. That was absurd, he knew, but somehow the sight of the gentle fields, blooming with summer flowers, was incongruous, unsettling. It was not the Marlas of his memories.

The only thing that remained the same was the large, imposing stone fort, rising tall into the deepening sky. Damen remembered how it had felt, returning to that fort victorious, feeling invincible despite the deep wound Auguste had dealt him before Damen had finally struck him down.

Returning now was a vastly different feeling. The past felt thick between them as they looked down upon Marlas, upon the fields that had put these events into motion—the fields that had defined their pasts and, in less than a week, would also define their futures. Damen shook off a sudden shiver that crept over his skin, despite the warm evening air.

He let out a deep breath, looking over at Laurent to find that Laurent was already looking at him. Damen could see the same complex emotions in Laurent’s eyes, but he smiled gently, easing Damen’s discomfort. They had something this time that they hadn’t had six years ago, and they would face whatever happened here together. The thought settled Damen’s heart, and he straightened in the saddle.

Damen nudged his heels into his horse’s flank, Laurent doing the same beside him, and, together, they rode into the waiting arms of Marlas.

*****