Prince’s Gambit (Captive Prince #2) – C.S. Pacat

THE SHADOWS WERE long with sunset when they rode up, and the horizon was red. Chastillon was a single jutting tower, a dark round bulk against the sky. It was huge and old, like the castles far to the south, Ravenel and Fortaine, built to withstand battering siege. Damen gazed at the view, unsettled. He found it impossible to look at the approach without seeing the castle at Marlas, that distant tower flanked by long red fields. ‘It’s hunting country,’ said Orlant, mistaking the nature of his gaze. ‘Dare you to make a run for it.’ He said nothing. He was not here to run. It was a strange feeling to be unchained and riding with a group of Veretian soldiers of his own free will. A day’s ride, even at the slow pace of wagons through pleasant countryside in late spring, was enough by which to judge the quality of a company. Govart did very little but sit, an impersonal shape above the swishing tail of his muscled horse, but whoever had captained these men previously had drilled them to maintain immaculate formation over the long course of a ride. The discipline was a little surprising. Damen wondered if they could hold their lines in a fight. If they could, there was some cause for hope, though in truth, his wellspring of good mood had more to do with the outdoors, the sunshine and the illusion of freedom that came with being given a horse and a sword.

Even the weight of the gold collar and cuffs on his throat and wrists could not diminish it. The household servants had turned out to meet them, arraying themselves as they would for the arrival of any significant party. The Regent’s men, who were supposedly stationed at Chastillon awaiting the Prince’s arrival, were nowhere to be seen. There were fifty horses to be stabled, fifty sets of armour and tack to be unstrapped, and fifty places to be readied in the barracks—and that was only the men at arms, not the servants and wagons. But in the enormous courtyard, the Prince’s party looked small, insignificant. Chastillon was large enough to swallow fifty men as though the number was nothing. No one was pitching tents: the men would sleep in the barracks; Laurent would sleep in the keep. Laurent swung out of the saddle, peeled off his riding gloves, tucking them into his belt, and gave his attention to the castellan. Govart barked a few orders, and Damen found himself occupied with armour, detailing and care of his horse. Across the courtyard, a couple of alaunt hounds came bounding down the stone stairs to throw themselves ecstatically at Laurent, who indulged one of them with a rub behind the ears, causing a spasm of jealousy in the other.

Orlant broke Damen’s attention. ‘Physician wants you,’ he said, pointing with his chin to an awning at the far end of the courtyard, under which could be glimpsed a familiar grey head. Damen put down the breastplate he was holding, and went. ‘Sit,’ said the physician. Damen did so, rather gingerly, on the only available seat, a small three-legged stool. The physician began to unbuckle a worked leather satchel. ‘Show me your back.’ ‘It’s fine.’ ‘After a day in the saddle? In armour?’ said the physician. ‘It’s fine,’ said Damen.

The physician said, ‘Take off your shirt.’ The physician’s gaze was implacable. After a long moment, Damen reached behind himself and drew his shirt off, exposing the breadth of his shoulders to the physician. It was fine. His back had healed enough that new scars had replaced new wounds. Damen craned for a glimpse but, not being an owl, saw almost nothing. He stopped before he got a crick in his neck. The physician rummaged in the satchel and produced one of his endless ointments. ‘A massage?’ ‘These are healing salves. It should be done every night.

It will help the scarring to fade a little, in time.’ That was really too much. ‘It’s cosmetic?’ The physician said, ‘I was told you would be difficult. Very well. The better it heals, the less your back will trouble you with stiffness, both now and later in life, so that you will be better able to swing a sword around, killing a great many people. I was told you would be responsive to that argument.’ ‘The Prince,’ said Damen. But of course. All this tender care of his back, like soothing with a kiss the reddened cheek you have slapped. But he was, infuriatingly, right.

Damen needed to be able to fight. The ointment was cool, and scented, and it worked on the effect of a long day’s ride. One by one, Damen’s muscles unlocked. His neck bent forward, his hair falling a little about his face. His breathing eased. The physician worked with impersonal hands. ‘I don’t know your name,’ Damen admitted. ‘You don’t remember my name. You were in and out of consciousness, the night we met. A lash or two more, you might not have seen morning.

’ Damen snorted. ‘It wasn’t that bad.’ The physician gave him an odd look. ‘My name is Paschal,’ was all he said. ‘Paschal,’ said Damen. ‘It’s your first time to ride with troops on campaign?’ ‘No. I was the King’s physician. I tended the fallen at Marlas, and at Sanpelier.’ There was a silence. Damen had meant to ask Paschal what he knew of the Regent’s men, but now he said nothing, just held his bunched shirt in his hands.

The work on his back continued, slow and methodical. ‘I fought at Marlas,’ said Damen. ‘I assumed you had.’ Another silence. Damen had a view of the ground under the awning, packed earth instead of stone. He looked down at a scuffmark, the torn edge of a dry leaf. The hands on his back eventually lifted and were done. Outside, the courtyard was clearing; Laurent’s men were efficient. Damen stood, shook out his shirt. ‘If you served the King,’ said Damen, ‘how is it you now find yourself in the Prince’s household, and not his uncle’s?’ ‘Men find themselves in the places they put themselves,’ Paschal said, closing his satchel with a snap.

Returning to the courtyard, he couldn’t report to Govart, who had vanished, but he did find Jord, directing traffic. ‘Can you read and write?’ Jord asked him. ‘Yes, of course,’ said Damen. Then stopped. Jord didn’t notice. ‘Almost nothing’s been done to prepare for tomorrow. The Prince says, we’re not leaving without a full arsenal. He also says, we’re not delaying departure. Go to the western armoury, take an inventory, and give it to that man.’ Pointing.

‘Rochert.’ Since taking a full inventory was a task that would take all night, Damen assumed what he was to do was check the existing inventory, which he found in a series of leather-bound books. He opened the first of them searching for the correct pages, and felt a strange sensation pass over him when he realised that he was looking at a seven-year-old list of hunting weaponry made for the Crown Prince Auguste. Prepared for His Highness the Crown Prince Auguste, garniture of hunter’s cutlery, one staf , eight tipped spear-heads, bow and strings. He was not alone in the armoury. From somewhere behind shelves, he heard the cultured voice of a young male courtier saying, ‘You’ve heard your orders. They come from the Prince.’ ‘Why should I believe that? You his pet?’ said a coarser voice. And another: ‘I’d pay to watch that.’ And another: ‘The Prince has got ice in his veins.

He doesn’t fuck. We’ll take orders when the Captain comes and tells us them himself.’ ‘How dare you speak about your Prince like that. Choose your weapon. I said choose your weapon. Now.’ ‘You’re going to get hurt, pup.’ ‘If you’re too much of a coward to—’ said the courtier, and before he was even halfway through that sentence, Damen was folding his grip around one of the swords and walking out. He rounded the corner just in time to see one of three men in the Regent’s livery draw back, swing, and punch the courtier hard in the face. The courtier wasn’t a courtier.

It was the young soldier whose name Laurent had dryly mentioned to Jord. Tell the servants to sleep with their legs closed. And Aimeric. Aimeric staggered backwards and hit the wall, sliding halfway down its length as he opened and closed his eyes with stupefied blinks. Blood poured from his nose. The three men had seen Damen. ‘That’s shut him up,’ said Damen, equitably. ‘Why don’t you leave it at that, and I’ll take him back to the barracks.’ It wasn’t Damen’s size that stopped them. It wasn’t the sword he held casually in his hand.

If these men really wanted to make a fight out of it, there were enough swords, flingable armour pieces, and teetering shelves to turn this into something long and ludicrous. It was only when the leader of the men saw Damen’s gold collar that he shoved out an arm, holding the others back. And Damen understood, in that moment, exactly how things were going to be on this campaign: the Regent’s men in ascendancy. Aimeric and the Prince’s men were targets because they had no one to complain to except Govart, who would slap them back down. Govart, the Regent’s favourite thug, brought here to keep the Prince’s men in check. But Damen was different. Damen was untouchable, because Damen had a direct line of reportage to the Prince. He waited. The men, unwilling to openly defy the Prince, decided on discretion; the man who had laid out Aimeric nodded slowly, and the three moved off and out, Damen watching them go. He turned to Aimeric, noting his fine skin and elegant wrists.

It wasn’t unheard of for younger sons of the highborn to seek out a position in the royal guard, making what name for themselves they could. But as far as Damen had seen, Laurent’s men were of a rougher sort. Aimeric was probably exactly as out of place among them as he looked. Damen held out his hand, which Aimeric ignored, pushing himself up. ‘How old are you? Eighteen?’ ‘Nineteen,’ said Aimeric. Around the smashed nose, he had a fine-boned aristocratic face, beautifully shaped dark brows, long dark lashes. He was more attractive up close. You noticed things like his pretty mouth, even dripping with nosebleed. Damen said, ‘It’s never a good idea to start a fight. Particularly against three men when you’re the type who goes down with one punch.

’ ‘If I go down, I stand back up. I’m not afraid to be hit,’ said Aimeric. ‘Well, good, because if you insist on provoking the Regent’s men, it’s going to happen a lot. Tip your head back.’ Aimeric stared at him, hand clasped to his nose, holding a fistful of blood. ‘You’re the Prince’s pet. I’ve heard all about you.’ Damen said, ‘If you’re not going to tip your head back, why don’t we go find Paschal? He can give you a scented ointment.’ Aimeric didn’t budge. ‘You couldn’t take a flogging like a man.

You opened your mouth and squealed to the Regent. You laid hands on him. You spat on his reputation. Then you tried to escape, and he still intervened for you, because he’d never abandon a member of his household to the Regency. Not even someone like you.’ Damen had gone very still. He looked at the boy’s young, bloody face, and reminded himself that Aimeric had been willing to take a beating from three men in defence of his Prince’s honour. He’d call it misguided puppy love, except that he’d seen the glint of something similar in Jord, in Orlant, and even, in his own quiet way, in Paschal. Damen thought of the ivory and gold casing that held a creature duplicitous, self-serving and untrustworthy. ‘You’re so loyal to him.

Why is that?’ ‘I’m not a turncoat Akielon dog,’ said Aimeric. Damen delivered the inventory to Rochert, and the Prince’s Guard began the task of preparing arms, armour and wagons for their departure the following morning. It was work that should have been done before their arrival, by the Regent’s men. But of the hundred and fifty Regent’s men set to ride out with the Prince, fewer than two dozen had turned out to help them. Damen joined the work, where he was the only man to smell, expensively, of ointments and cinnamon. The sole knot remaining in Damen’s back concerned the fact that the castellan had ordered him to report to the keep when he was done. After an hour or so, Jord approached him. ‘Aimeric’s young. He says it won’t happen again,’ said Jord. It will happen again, and once the two factions in this camp start retaliating against one another your campaign is over, he didn’t say.

He said, ‘Where’s the Captain?’ ‘The Captain is in one of the horse stalls, up to his waist in the stableboy,’ said Jord. ‘The Prince has been waiting for him at the barracks. Actually . I was told to have you fetch him.’ ‘From the stables,’ said Damen. He stared at Jord in disbelief. ‘Better you than me,’ said Jord. ‘Look for him down the back. Oh, and when you’re done, report to the keep.’ It was a long walk across two courtyards from the barracks to the stables.

Damen hoped that Govart would be finished by the time he arrived, but of course he wasn’t. The stables contained all the quiet sounds of horses at night, but even so Damen heard it before he saw it: the soft rhythmic sounds coming, as Jord had accurately predicted, from the back. Damen weighed Govart’s reaction to an interruption against Laurent’s to being kept waiting. He pushed open the stall door. Inside, Govart was unambiguously fucking the stableboy against the far wall. The boy’s pants were in a crumpled heap on the straw not far from Damen’s feet. His bare legs were splayed wide and his shirt was open and pushed up onto his back. His face was pressed to the rough wooden panelling and held in place by Govart’s fist in his hair. Govart was dressed. He had unlaced his own pants only enough to take out his cock.

Govart stopped long enough to glance sideways and say, ‘What?’ before, deliberately, continuing. The stableboy, seeing Damen, reacted differently, squirming. ‘Stop,’ said the stableboy. ‘Stop. Not with someone watching—’ ‘Calm down. It’s just the Prince’s pet.’ Govart jerked the stableboy’s head back for emphasis. Damen said, ‘The Prince wants you.’ ‘He can wait,’ said Govart. ‘No.

He can’t.’ ‘He wants me to pull out on his order? Go visit him with a hard prick?’ Govart bared his teeth in a grin. ‘You think that too-stuck-up-to-fuck stuff is just an act, and he’s really just a tease who wants cock?’ Damen felt anger settle inside him, a tangible weight. He recognised an echo of the impotence Aimeric must have experienced in the armoury, except that he was not a green nineteen year old who had never seen a fight. His eyes passed impassively over the half-unclothed body of the stableboy. He realised that in a moment he was going to return to Govart in this small, dusty stall all that was owed for the rape of Erasmus. He said, ‘Your Prince gave you an order.’ Govart forestalled him, pushing the stableboy away in annoyance. ‘Fuck, I can’t get off with all this —’ Tucking himself back in. The stableboy stumbled a few steps, sucking in air.

‘The barracks,’ said Damen, and weathered the impact of Govart’s shoulder against his own as Govart strode out. The stableboy stared at Damen, breathing hard. He was braced against the wall with one hand; the other was between his legs in furious modesty. Wordlessly, Damen picked up the boy’s pants and tossed them at him. ‘He was supposed to pay me a copper sol,’ said the stableboy, sullenly. Damen said, ‘I’ll take it up with the Prince.’ And then it was time to report to the castellan, who led him up steps and all the way into the bedchamber. It was not as ornate as the palace chambers in Arles. The walls were thick hewn stone. The windows were frosted glass, criss-crossed with lattice.

With the darkness outside, they did not offer a view, but instead reflected the shadows of the room. A frieze of twining vine leaves ran around the room. There was a carved mantle and a banked fire; and lamps, and wall hangings, and the cushions and silks of a separate slave pallet, he noticed, with a feeling of relief. Dominating the room was the heavy opulence of the bed. The walls around the bed were panelled in dark, carved wood, depicting a hunting scene in which a boar was held at the end of a spear, pierced through the neck. There was no sign of the blue and gold starburst. The draperies were blood red. Damen said, ‘These are the Regent’s chambers.’ There was something uneasily transgressive about the idea of sleeping in the place meant for Laurent’s uncle. ‘The Prince stays here often?’ The castellan mistook him to mean the keep, not the rooms.

‘Not often. He and his uncle came here a great deal together, in the year or two after Marlas. As he grew older, the Prince lost his taste for the runs here. He now comes only rarely to Chastillon.’ At the order of the castellan, servants brought him bread and meat and he ate. They cleared away the plates, and brought in a beautifully shaped pitcher and goblets, and left, perhaps by accident, the knife. Damen looked at the knife and thought about how much he would have given for an oversight like that when he was trussed up in Arles: a knife that he might take and use to prise his way out of the palace. He sat himself down to wait. On the table before him was a detailed map of Vere and Akielos, each hill and crest, each town and keep meticulously recorded. The river Seraine snaked its way south, but he already knew they were not following the river.

He put his fingertip on Chastillon and traced one possible path to Delpha, south through Vere until he reached the line that marked the edge of his own country, all the place names written jarringly in Veretian: Achelos, Delfeur. In Arles, the Regent had sent assassins to kill his nephew. It had been death at the bottom of a poisoned cup, at the end of a drawn sword. That was not what was happening here. Throw together two feuding companies, put them under a partisan, intolerant captain, and hand the result to a green commander-prince. This group was going to tear itself apart. And likely there was nothing Damen could do to stop it happening. This was going to be a ride of disintegrating morale; the ambush that surely awaited them at the border would devastate a company already in disarray, ruined by in-fighting and negligent leadership. Laurent was the only counterweight against the Regent, and Damen would do all he had promised to keep him alive, but the stark truth of this ride to the border was that it felt like the last play in a game that was already over. Whatever business Laurent had with Govart kept him deep into the night.

The sounds from the keep grew quiet; the fluttering of the flames grew audible in the hearth. Damen sat and waited, his hands loosely clasped. The feelings that freedom—the illusion of freedom—stirred in him were strange. He thought of Jord and Aimeric and all Laurent’s men working through the night to prepare for an early departure. There were house servants in the keep, and he was not eager for Laurent’s return. But as he waited in the empty rooms, the fire flickering in the hearth, his eyes passing over the careful lines of the map, he was conscious, as he had seldom been during his captivity, of being alone. Laurent entered, and Damen rose from his seat. Orlant could be glimpsed in the doorway behind him. ‘You can go. I don’t need a guard on the door,’ said Laurent.

Orlant nodded. The door closed. Laurent said, ‘I have saved you till last.’ Damen said, ‘You owe the stableboy a copper sol.’ ‘The stableboy should learn to demand payment before he bends over.’ Laurent calmly helped himself to goblet and pitcher, pouring himself a drink. Damen couldn’t help glancing at the goblet, remembering the last time they had been alone together in Laurent’s rooms. Pale brows arched a fraction. ‘Your virtue’s safe. It’s just water.

Probably.’ Laurent took a sip, then lowered the goblet, holding it in refined fingers. He glanced at the chair, as a host might offering a seat, and said, as though the words amused him, ‘Make yourself comfortable. You are going to stay the night.’ ‘No restraints?’ said Damen. ‘You don’t think I’ll try to leave, pausing only to kill you on the way out?’ ‘Not until we get closer to the border,’ said Laurent. He returned Damen’s gaze evenly. There was no sound but the crack and pop of the banked fire. ‘You really do have ice in your veins, don’t you,’ said Damen. Laurent placed the goblet carefully back on the table, and picked up the knife.

It was a sharp knife, made for cutting meat. Damen felt his pulse quicken as Laurent came forward. Only a handful of nights ago, he had watched Laurent slit a man’s throat, spilling blood as red as the silk that covered this room’s bed. He felt shock as Laurent’s fingers touched his, pressing the hilt of the knife into his hand. Laurent took hold of Damen’s wrist below the gold cuff, firmed his grip, and drew the knife forward so that it was angled towards his own stomach. The tip of the blade pressed slightly into the dark blue of his prince’s garment. ‘You heard me tell Orlant to leave,’ said Laurent. Damen felt Laurent’s grip slide down his wrist to his fingers, and tighten. Laurent said, ‘I am not going to waste time on posturing and threats. Why don’t we clear up any uncertainty about your intentions?’ It was well placed, just below the rib cage.

All you would have to do was push in, then angle up. He was so infuriatingly sure of himself, proving a point. Damen felt desire come hard upon him: not wholly a desire for violence, but a desire to drive the knife into Laurent’s composure, to force him to show something other than cool indifference. He said: ‘I’m sure there are house servants still awake. How do I know you won’t scream?’ ‘Do I seem like the type to scream?’ ‘I’m not going to use the knife,’ said Damen, ‘but if you’re willing to put it in my hand, you underestimate how much I want to.’ ‘No,’ said Laurent. ‘I know exactly what it is to want to kill a man, and to wait.’ Damen stepped back and lowered the knife. His knuckles remained tight around it. They gazed at one another.

.

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