Kings Rising (Captive Prince #3) – C.S. Pacat

DAMIANOS.’ Damen stood at the base of the dais steps as his name spread in tones of shock and disbelief over the courtyard. Nikandros knelt before him, his army knelt before him. It was like coming home, until his name, rippling outwards over the ranks of the gathered Akielon soldiers, hit the Veretian commoners thronging the edges of the space, where it changed. The shock was different, a doubled shock, a rippling impact now, of anger, of alarm. Damen heard the first voice in outcry, a swell of violence, a new word now in the mouths of the crowd. ‘Prince-killer.’ A hiss of a rock, thrown. Nikandros came up off his knees, drawing his sword. Damen flung out a hand in a motion for halt, stopping Nikandros instantly, his sword showing a half-foot of Akielon steel. He could see the confusion on Nikandros’s face, as the courtyard around them began to disintegrate. ‘Damianos?’ ‘Order your men to hold,’ said Damen, even as the sharp sound of steel closer by had him turning fast. A Veretian soldier in a grey helmet had drawn his sword, and was staring at Damen as though he faced his worst nightmare. It was Huet; Damen recognised the white face under the helmet. Huet was holding his sword out before him the way Jord had held the knife: between two shaking hands.

‘Damianos?’ said Huet. ‘Hold!’ Damen ordered again, shouting to be heard over the crowd, over the new, hoarse cry in Akielon, ‘Treason!’ It was death to draw a blade on a member of the Akielon royal family. He was still keeping Nikandros back with the gesture of his outflung hand, but he could feel every sinew in Nikandros strain in the effort to hold himself in place. There were wild shouts now, the thin perimeter breaking down as the crowd swelled with the panicked urge to run. To stampede and get out of the way of the Akielon army. Or to swarm over it. He saw Guymar scan the courtyard, the tense fear in his eyes clear. Soldiers could see what a peasant mob could not: that the Akielon force inside the walls—inside the walls—outnumbered the skeletal Veretian garrison fifteen to one. Another sword was drawn alongside Huet’s, a horrified Veretian soldier. Anger and disbelief showed in the faces of some of the Veretian guard; in others there was fear, looking to one another desperately for guidance.

And in the first spilling breach in the perimeter, the spiralling frenzy of the crowd, the Veretian guards no longer fully under his control—Damen saw how completely he had underestimated the effect of his identity on the men and women of this fort. Damianos, prince-killer. His mind, used to battlefield decisions, took in the sweep of the courtyard, and made the commander’s choice: to minimise losses, to limit bloodshed and chaos, and to secure Ravenel. The Veretian guards were beyond his orders, and the Veretian people . if these bitter, furious emotions could be soothed among the Veretian people, he was not the one to soothe them. There was only one way to stop what was about to happen, and that was to contain it; to lock it down, to secure this place once and for all. Damen said to Nikandros, ‘Take the fort.’ * * * Damen swept along the passage, flanked by six Akielon guards. Akielon voices rang in the halls and red Akielon flags flew over Ravenel. Akielon soldiers on either side of the doorway drew their heels together as he passed.

Ravenel had now changed allegiance twice in as many days. This time it had happened swiftly; Damen knew exactly how to subdue this fort. The skeleton Veretian force had quickly buckled in the courtyard, and Damen had ordered their two senior soldiers, Guymar and Jord, brought to him, stripped of armour and under guard. As Damen entered the small antechamber, the Akielon guards took hold of their two prisoners and thrust them roughly to the ground. ‘Kneel,’ the guard commanded in mangled Veretian. Jord sprawled. ‘No. Let them stand.’ Damen gave the order in Akielon. Instant obedience.

It was Guymar who shrugged the treatment off and regained his feet first. Jord, who had known Damen for months, was more circumspect, rising slowly. Guymar met Damen’s eyes. He spoke in Veretian, giving no sign that he had understood Akielon. ‘So it’s true. You are Damianos of Akielos.’ ‘It’s true.’ Guymar purposefully spat, and for his trouble was backhanded hard across the face with a mailed fist by the Akielon soldier. Damen let it happen, aware of what would have happened if a man had spat on the ground in front of his father. ‘Are you here to put us to the sword?’ Guymar’s words were spoken as his eyes returned to Damen.

Damen’s gaze passed over him, then over Jord. He saw the grime on their faces, their drawn, tight expressions. Jord had been the Captain of the Prince’s Guard. He knew Guymar less well: Guymar had been a commander in Touars’s army before he’d defected to Laurent’s side. But both men had been ranked officers. It was why he had ordered them brought here. ‘I want you to fight with me,’ said Damen. ‘Akielos is here to stand by your side.’ Guymar let out a shaky breath. ‘Fight with you? You will use our cooperation to take the fort.

’ ‘I already have the fort,’ said Damen. He said it calmly. ‘You know the manner of man we face in the Regent,’ said Damen. ‘Your men have a choice. They can remain prisoners at Ravenel, or they can ride with me to Charcy, and show the Regent we stand together.’ ‘We don’t stand together,’ said Guymar. ‘You betrayed our Prince.’ And then, as though he almost couldn’t bear to say it, ‘You had him—’ ‘Take him out,’ said Damen, cutting it off. He dismissed the Akielon guards, too, and they filed out until the antechamber was deserted, except for the one man he allowed to stay. In Jord’s face was none of the mistrust or fear that had been stamped so clearly on the faces of the other Veretians, but a weary search for understanding.

Damen said, ‘I made him a promise.’ ‘And when he learns who you are?’ said Jord. ‘When he learns that he is facing Damianos on the field?’ ‘Then he and I meet each other for the first time,’ said Damen. ‘That was also a promise.’ * * * When it was done, he found himself pausing, his hand on the doorframe to catch his breath. He thought of his name, spreading through Ravenel, across the province, to its target. He had a sense of holding on, as though if he just held the fort, held these men together long enough to reach Charcy, then what followed— He couldn’t think about what followed, all he could do was keep to his promise. He pushed open the door and walked into the small hall. Nikandros turned when Damen entered, and their eyes met. Before Damen could speak, Nikandros went to one knee; not spontaneously as he had done in the courtyard, but deliberately, bending his head.

‘The fort is yours,’ Nikandros said. ‘My King.’ King. The ghost of his father seemed to prickle over his skin. It was his father’s title, but his father no longer sat on the throne at Ios. Looking at the bowed head of his friend, Damen realised it for the first time. He was no longer the young prince who had roamed the palace halls with Nikandros after a day spent wrestling together on the sawdust. There was no Prince Damianos. The self that he had been striving to return to was gone. To gain everything and lose everything in the space of a moment.

That is the fate of all princes destined for the throne. Laurent had said that. Damen took in Nikandros’s familiar, classically Akielon features, his dark hair and brows, his olive face and straight Akielon nose. As children, they had run barefoot together through the palace. When he’d imagined a return to Akielos, he’d imagined greeting Nikandros, embracing him, heedless of the armour, like digging in his fingers and feeling in his fist the earth of his home. Instead, Nikandros knelt in an enemy fort, his sparse Akielon armour incongruous in the Veretian setting, and Damen felt the gulf of distance that separated them. ‘Rise,’ said Damen. ‘Old friend.’ He wanted to say so much. He felt it welling up inside him, a hundred moments when he had forced back the doubt that he would ever see Akielos, the high cliffs, the opaline sea, and the faces, like this one, of those that he called friend.

‘I thought you dead,’ said Nikandros. ‘I have mourned your passing. I lit the ekthanos and made the long walk at dawn when I thought you gone.’ Nikandros spoke still partly in wonder as he rose. ‘Damianos, what happened to you?’ Damen thought of the soldiers bursting into his rooms, of being lashed down in the slave baths, of the dark, muffled journey by ship to Vere. He thought of being confined, his face painted, his body drugged and displayed. He thought of opening his eyes in the Veretian palace, and what had happened to him there. ‘You were right about Kastor,’ Damen said. It was all he said. ‘I watched him crowned at the Kingsmeet,’ said Nikandros.

His eyes were dark. ‘He stood on the Kingstone and said, “This twin tragedy has taught us that all things are possible.”’ It sounded like Kastor. It sounded like Jokaste. Damen thought of how it would have been in Akielos, the kyroi gathered among the ancient stones of the Kingsmeet, Kastor enthroned with Jokaste beside him, her hair immaculate and her swollen belly swathed, slaves fanning the air in the still heat. He said to Nikandros, ‘Tell me.’ He heard it. He heard all of it. He heard of his own body, wrapped and taken in the processional through the acropolis, then interred beside his father. He heard Kastor’s claim that he had been killed by his own guard.

He heard of his guard, killed in turn, like his childhood trainer Haemon, like his squires, like his slaves. Nikandros spoke of the confusion and slaughter throughout the palace, and in its wake, Kastor’s swordsmen taking control, claiming wherever they were challenged that they were containing the bloodshed, not causing it. He remembered the sound of bells at dusk. Theomedes is dead. All hail Kastor. Nikandros said, ‘There’s more.’ Nikandros hesitated for a moment, searching Damen’s face. Then he pulled a letter from his leather breastplate. It was battered, and by far the worse for its method of conveyance, but when Damen took it and unfolded it, he saw why Nikandros had kept it close. To the Kyros of Delpha, Nikandros, from Laurent, Prince of Vere.

Damen felt the hairs rise over his body. The letter was old. The writing was old. Laurent must have sent the letter from Arles. Damen thought of him, alone, politically cornered, sitting at his desk to begin writing. He remembered Laurent’s limpid voice. Do you think I’d get on well with Nikandros of Delpha? It made tactical sense, in a horrifying way, for Laurent to have made an alliance with Nikandros. Laurent had always been capable of a kind of ruthless pragmatism. He was able to put emotion aside and do what he had to do to win, with a perfect and nauseating ability to ignore all human feeling. In return for aid from Nikandros, the letter said, Laurent would offer proof that Kastor had colluded with the Regent to kill King Theomedes of Akielos.

It was the same information that Laurent had flung at him last night. You poor dumb brute. Kastor killed the King, then took the city with my uncle’s troops. ‘There were questions,’ said Nikandros, ‘but for every question Kastor had an answer. He was the King’s son. And you were dead. There was no one left to rally behind,’ Nikandros said. ‘Meniados of Sicyon was the first to swear his loyalty. And beyond that—’ Damen said, ‘The south belongs to Kastor.’ He knew what he faced.

He had never supposed to hear that the story of his brother’s treachery was a mistake: to hear that Kastor was overjoyed by the news that he lived, and welcomed his return. Nikandros said, ‘The north is loyal.’ ‘And if I call on you to fight?’ ‘Then we fight,’ said Nikandros. ‘Together.’ The straightforward ease of it left him without words. He had forgotten what home felt like. He had forgotten trust, loyalty, kinship. Friends. Nikandros drew something from a fold in his clothing, and pressed it into Damen’s hand. ‘This is yours.

I have kept it . A foolish token. I knew it was treason. I wanted to remember you by it.’ A crooked half-smile. ‘Your friend is a fool and courts treason for a keepsake.’ Damen opened his hand. The curl of mane, the arc of a tail—Nikandros had given him the golden lion pin worn by the King. Theomedes had passed it on to Damen on his seventeenth birthday to mark him as heir. Damen remembered his father fixing it to his shoulder.

Nikandros must have risked execution to find it, to take it and to carry it with him. ‘You are too quick to pledge yourself to me.’ He felt the hard, bright edges of the pin in his fist. ‘You are my King,’ said Nikandros. He saw it reflected back at him in Nikandros’s eyes, as he had seen it in the eyes of the men. He felt it, in the different way Nikandros behaved towards him. King. The pin was his now, and soon the bannermen would come and pledge to him as King, and nothing would be the way it was before. To gain everything and lose everything in the space of a moment. That is the fate of all princes destined for the throne.

He clasped Nikandros’s shoulder, the wordless touch all he would allow himself. ‘You look like a wall tapestry.’ Nikandros plucked at Damen’s sleeve, amused by red velvet, fastenings of garnet, and small, exquisitely sewn rows of ruching. And then he went still. ‘Damen,’ said Nikandros, in a strange voice. Damen looked down. And saw. His sleeve had slipped, revealing a cuff of heavy gold. Nikandros tried to move back, as though burned or stung, but Damen clasped his arm, preventing the retreat. He could see it, splitting Nikandros’s brain, the unthinkable.

His heart pounding, he tried to stop it, to salvage it. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Kastor made me a slave. Laurent freed me. He gave me command of his fort and his troops, an act of trust for an Akielon he had no reason to elevate. He doesn’t know who I am.’ ‘The Prince of Vere freed you,’ said Nikandros. ‘You have been his slave?’ His voice thickened with the words. ‘You have served the Prince of Vere as a slave?’ Another step back. There was a shocked sound from the doorway.

Damen whirled towards it, releasing his grip on Nikandros. Makedon stood in the doorway, a growing horror on his face, and behind him Straton, and two of Nikandros’s soldiers. Makedon was Nikandros’s general, his most powerful bannerman, and he had come to pledge to Damianos as the bannermen had pledged to Damen’s father. Damen stood, exposed, before them all. He flushed, hard. A golden wrist cuff had only one meaning: use, and submission, of the most private kind. He knew what they saw—a hundred images of slaves, submitting, bending at the hip, parting their thighs, the casual ease with which these men would have taken slaves in their own households. He remembered himself saying, Leave it on. His chest felt tight. He forced himself to keep untying laces, pushing his sleeve up further.

‘Does it shock you? I was a personal gift to the Prince of Vere.’ He had bared his whole forearm. Nikandros turned to Makedon, his voice harsh. ‘You will not speak of this. You will never speak of this outside this room—’ Damen said, ‘No. It can’t be hidden.’ He said it to Makedon. A man of his father’s generation, Makedon was the commander of one of the largest of the provincial armies of the north. Behind him, Straton’s distaste looked like nausea. The two secondary officers had their eyes on the floor, too low-ranked to do anything else in the presence of the King, especially in the face of what they were seeing.

‘You were the Prince’s slave?’ Revulsion was stamped on Makedon’s face, whitening it. ‘Yes.’ ‘You—’ Makedon’s words echoed the unspoken question in Nikandros’s eyes that no man would ever say aloud to his King. Damen’s flush changed in quality. ‘You dare ask that.’ Makedon said, thickly, ‘You are our King. This is an insult to Akielos that cannot be borne.’ ‘You will bear it,’ said Damen, holding Makedon’s gaze, ‘as I have borne it. Or do you think yourself above your King?’ Slave, said the resistance in Makedon’s eyes. Makedon certainly had slaves in his own household, and made use of them.

What he imagined between Prince and slave stripped it of all the subtleties of surrender. Having been done to his King, it had in some sense been done to him, and his pride revolted at it. ‘If this becomes common knowledge, I can’t guarantee I will be able to control the actions of the men,’ said Nikandros. ‘It is common knowledge,’ said Damen. He watched the words impact on Nikandros, who could not quite swallow them. ‘What would you have us do?’ Nikandros pushed the words out. ‘Make your pledge,’ said Damen. ‘And if you are mine, gather the men to fight.’ * * * The plan he had developed with Laurent was simple, and relied on timing. Charcy was not a field like Hellay, with a single, clear vantage.

Charcy was a pocketed, hilly trap, half backed by forest, where a well-positioned force could quickly manufacture a surround on an approaching troop. It was the reason the Regent had chosen Charcy as the place where he would challenge his nephew. Inviting Laurent to a fair fight at Charcy was like smiling and inviting him to take a stroll across quicksand. So they had split their forces. Laurent had ridden out two days ago to approach from the north and reverse the Regent’s surround by bringing up at the rear. Damen’s men were the bait. He looked for a long time at the wrist cuff before he walked out onto the dais. It was bright gold, visible at some distance against the skin of his wrist. He didn’t try to hide it. He had discarded his wrist gauntlets.

He wore the Akielon breastplate, the short leather skirt, the high Akielon sandals strapped to his knee. His arms were bare, as were his legs from knee to mid-thigh. The short red cape was pinned to his shoulder by the golden lion. Armoured and battle-ready, he stepped out onto the dais and looked out at the army that was gathered below, the immaculate lines and shining spears, all of it waiting for him. He let them see the cuff on his wrist, as he let them see him. He knew by now the ever-present whisper: Damianos, risen from the dead. He watched the army fall silent before him. He let the Prince he had been drop away, let himself feel the new role, the new self settle about him. ‘Men of Akielos,’ he said, his words echoing across the courtyard. He looked out at the rows of red cloaks, and it felt as it felt to take up a sword or fit a gauntlet to his hand.

‘I am Damianos, true son of Theomedes, and I have returned to fight for you as your King.’ A deafening roar of approval; spear-butts hammering into the ground in approbation. He saw arms raised, soldiers cheering, and caught a flash of the impassive, helmed face of Makedon. Damen swung up into the saddle. He had taken the same horse he had ridden at Hellay, a big bay gelding that could take his weight. It struck its front hoof on the cobbles, as though seeking to overturn a stone, arching its neck, perhaps sensing, in the manner of all great beasts, that they were on the cusp of war. The horns sounded. The standards went up. There was a sudden clatter, like a handful of marbles cast down steps, and a small group of Veretians in battered blue rode into the courtyard on horseback. Not Guymar.

But Jord and Huet. Lazar. Scanning their faces, Damen saw who they were. These were the men of the Prince’s Guard, with whom Damen had travelled for months. And there was only one reason why they had been released from confinement. Damen held up a hand, and Jord was allowed through, so that for a moment their horses circled each other. ‘We’ve come to ride with you,’ said Jord. Damen looked at the small clump of blue now gathered before the rows of red in the courtyard. There weren’t many of them, only twenty, and he saw at once that it was Jord who had convinced them, so that they were here, mounted and ready. ‘Then we ride,’ said Damen.

‘For Akielos, and for Vere.’


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