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“Laurent,” Damen yawned, muscles in his arms bunching as he stretched luxuriously on their bed, blankets falling tantalizingly down his bare stomach. Laurent curled his lip in a small smile, taking note of the dark trail of hair on Damen’s tummy, the cut of his hipbones visible beneath the soft linen sheets. “Must you always go write immediately after we make love?”

Laurent smiled into his parchment. He did not speak – after all, he could not. In his head, he thought, I feel so much clearer after you’ve made love to me. My head doesn’t buzz quite so loud.

He couldn’t remember if the buzzing had always been so distracting. Perhaps before, to release the warring jumble of thoughts in his mind, he’d simply speak them all out loud – sharp and pointed, even if they were not entirely true, he’d speak them and it would quiet his mind for a brief moment.

A rustling sound came from the bedside, the soft pad of bare feet against the tile. Laurent reflexively leaned back just as Damen draped himself over his shoulders, nude, warm and still damp with sweat. The sweet perfume of their earlier bath still clung to Damen’s curls, wrapping around Laurent like a blanket, like the silk robe draped loosely over his pale shoulders.

Damen pressed his lips to the crook of Laurent’s neck, and Laurent’s breath came sharp, staccato.

“What are you writing?” Damen murmured.

Laurent tapped the quill against his lip, smirking. He wiped the black ink onto a rag and transferred his attention to the soft wax tablet he used when it was necessary to have a back-and-forth conversation.

He wrote: I am writing to Berenger. It is necessary that his pet learn how to read.

Damen blinked. “Oh?”

Laurent nodded. The wax softened as he pressed his hand into it, erasing his previous message. Soft, warm, melting under his touch. He wrote again, I need someone who is not afraid to read out the insults I make towards the idiots at court. You have been fired, Damianos.

Berenger was one of the nobles who had unambiguously backed Laurent against his uncle. For that he – or rather, his Pet – enjoyed all of the luxury and status his heart desired in the wake of Laurent’s reign as King of Vere.

Damen watched the slow, deliberate way Laurent sliced his letters into the wax. Laurent only called him Damianos when he wanted to be especially insouciant, and when Laurent followed the m in his name with an i, Damen muffled his laughter behind one warm hand. It was a beautiful sound, his laughter, low and rich like chocolate. Sometimes, Laurent woke in the morning gray and sad, and told himself that if nothing else he needed to stay alive to hear that laughter one more time.

“I am merely,” Damen chuckled, “Trying to prevent a diplomatic incident.”

Laurent huffed, audibly. There were things he could say to that, but it wasn’t worth the time it’d take to write them out on his wax board. That was the curse of his muteness – he needed to be so much more careful and deliberate with his words. They could not simply rush out of him like knives in anger, cutting deep. He’d been so careless, before, tossing words and feelings and emotions at anyone and everyone, as though he’d have them forever.

Laurent paused, briefly, thinking there was one thing he wanted Damen to see. He wrote on the tablet: I think Nicaise would have been perfect to read for me.

Damen inhaled sharply as he saw Laurent’s fingers tremble when he wrote Nicaise’s name. He clasped Laurent’s other hand as he continued to write, running his thumb along it softly, and he leaned down to nuzzle into Laurent’s neck, pressing a few firm, grounding kisses on his shoulder.

“He would have been,” Damen agreed. Laurent said nothing, wiping away the words. As he went to wipe away Nicaise’s name, though, there was an uncomfortable swooping in his gut and he almost stopped, as though wiping it away would erase all memory of him. Nicaise did not have any family – it was Laurent’s responsibility to hold the memory of him close to his heart, to remember the boy that Laurent had loved like Auguste had loved him, all those years ago.

“Laurent,” Damen murmured, “Come back to bed with me. Your writing will be there in the morning.”

He held out his hand. It wasn’t a command, merely a kind request. Laurent stood, letting Damen lead him back, bringing the glow of the candle towards the bedside table.

Laurent breathed in shakily, pausing at the side of the bed to undo the robe tied at his waist. Damen’s eyes raked up and down his body, pupils going wide and black as he watched the way the warm yellow candlelight flickered against Laurent’s bare skin. He let the robe fall, slowly, smooth as water as it slid to Laurent’s elbows, then finally to the floor, leaving him as nude as Damen.

“Laurent,” Damen murmured again. He cupped Laurent’s cheek, achingly tender, sliding his thumb along Laurent’s cheekbone. Laurent felt the familiar stab of fear as Damen leaned in to kiss him, felt the hollowness in his mouth like a physical presence.

Perhaps Damen felt the sharp, fearful exhale against his lips, so he paused just before their lips touched. Laurent swallowed, thinking that if he submitted to the anticipatory horror of being kissed by his love, he would come out the other end feeling so much more cared for. He closed the gap, fingers trembling as he gripped Damen’s hand against his cheek.

When Damen kissed him, Laurent couldn’t help but melt into it. Damen’s hand was warm against his naked back, his other tilting Laurent’s face up towards his, drinking him in. It was intoxicating, and Laurent let himself be lulled into it. Damen’s tongue prodded gently against Laurent’s tightly closed lips, his hand sliding slowly down until it rested on the small of Laurent’s back, making his skin tingle as its warmth radiated into him.

Laurent whimpered, squeezing his eyes shut, but he parted his lips with trembling breaths. Damen’s tongue pressed into the empty cavity of his mouth gently, tracing the lines of his lips, and Laurent couldn’t help the trembling, whimpering sounds coming from his throat.

“It’s alright,” Damen breathed against his lips, “It’s alright. Don’t think, darling, please. Just let me make you feel good.”

Laurent nodded shakily. His relationship with sex was still tenuous, even moreso with his physical disability – it was hard to shake the terror that Damen would find his body, his mouth disgusting after what they did to him, would find him disgusting, as though he’d remember halfway through that Laurent had lost his virginity to his uncle and simply walk away. Laurent remembered the night there in Ravenel, the way Damen however inadvertently made him see sex for what it was supposed to be – reciprocal pleasure – as opposed to the exchange of power with a winner and a loser he’d been conditioned to see it as.

He remembered it, and wished he could go back to that moment, not knowing what would happen in the future and feeling pleasure like nothing he’d ever dreamed of before.

Don’t think. Laurent let out a low, keening whine and clenched tightly to Damen’s soft curls, his broad back, letting Damen coax whines and whimpers from his mouth. Damen’s hand slid down to clench his bare ass. His hand pulled Laurent apart, and he felt the slickness inside of him from their earlier lovemaking slide down the back of his thigh.

He would not think. He’d let Damen take care of him, and he would not think.

Damen, Laurent mouthed against Damen’s lips as Damen breathed into him, Damen, Damen-

“I know, sweetheart,” Damen murmured, “I know.”

They fell back onto the bed, Laurent letting Damen’s arms wrap around him. Damen’s hands were hot as they tugged at his hair, and Laurent wished desperately he could say everything he wanted to. Things were not easy, for a king with no voice – relying on advisors and only those closest to him to read out his proclamations. Damen’s cock slid into him, though, and Laurent whimpered, body shuddering as he relaxed and let Damen fill him.

There was so much he wanted to say. Thank you, for being patient as Laurent adjusted to being pleased even despite his childhood, his injury. Please, to let Damen know he wanted to keep going, that even if he was afraid sometimes he knew Damen would make him feel so safe.

I love you. He hadn’t said it, of course, before he lost his tongue.

Damen kept kissing him. It was sloppy and wet, especially as he began to move, lips sliding unevenly against each other. Laurent’s cock was pressed into Damen’s stomach, Damen’s hands clenched into the soft flesh of his ass held him open.

Unable to speak, Laurent moved his body languidly, sensuously – he tilted his head to express what he needed to, to show Damen he loved this, that he felt safe in his arms. What he couldn’t express with words, he showed with his body.

“Laurent,” Damen grunted, pulling back just barely from Laurent’s lips, leaving a trail of saliva, “I love how you look, when we do this. When you show me how much I can make you feel.”

Laurent gasped, Damen’s lips at his neck. His legs curled possessively around Damen’s hips. He loved it too, and he needed Damen to know that. He’d suffered through so much, but he was alive, and he was the king of Vere, and he could love being fucked into the mattress by his lover even if he couldn’t say so aloud.

Some days, Laurent mourned the loss of his voice, the loss of his tongue. He remembered kneeling before his uncle, lips pressed together, thinking that even if he could not speak he was glad he had told someone what had happened to him as a child as one last act of rebellion.

It was over, now. Laurent could rest.

Damen’s arms were so warm around him, his hand gripping the back of Laurent’s head as he brought their lips together. Maybe one day, Laurent would even be able to take him in his mouth, to submit to him intimately. For now, though, he’d let Damen kiss the worries out of him. He would not speak. He would not even think. In bed, he did not need to speak – his cries and moans and gasps said everything he needed to. It was nice, that the one time he could express himself fully was when Damen was fucking him.

He could simply toss his head back and mouth Damen’s name as Damen brought him to completion, safe and feeling so, so good.

When Govart pressed the bloody knife against the sloppy, wet mess of his tongue, Laurent couldn’t let the low, keening whine that tore out of him.

He immediately scolded himself, trying desperately to school his ragged breathing, to blink away the glassy sheen of pain in his eyes. It was just pain, just an irritating, nagging physical sensation – sure, he was tied to the ceiling, shoulder dislocated, shirt torn off his body and thin knife-ribbons of blood down his back. He matched Damen now, he thought hysterically.

It was a shame Damen would never know.

No, no. Laurent could not allow himself that kind of animal hysteria, not when he needed every ounce of concentration to map out what to do next.

Govart brought the knife out slightly, resting it tenderly against Laurent’s soft cheek. “You look beautiful like this, princess.”

Laurent’s voice floated through a strange, buzzing fog, the violin-string tension and tautness of his mind. He said, “And you’ve always looked uglier the closer you’ve gotten.”

Govart slapped him. He brought the knife away, and he slapped him. Laurent spit blood out to the side, cheek flaring up with burning pain to add to the cacophony of agonized sensations all around his body.

“You’ll be nothing by the time I’m done with you,” Govart snarled. “Nothing but a mangled mess of skin and bones. I bet the Akielon slave won’t even recognize you. He’d have to stick his cock in you to remember who you were.”

Laurent kept pointedly silent and took stock of his injuries. His face was a dull, throbbing bass of pain, bloody saliva trickling down his chin, while his body was a high pitched, stinging screech. His hands were numb, in contrast to the screaming agony of his shoulder, where Govart had stuck the knife mere moments ago.

Govart gripped Laurent’s chin, pressing his massive gorilla fingers into Laurent’s bruised jaw.

His breath was putrid with tobacco as he hissed, “I’ve waited so long for this moment, where your uncle finally let me do anything I wanted to you. I can’t wait to put my cock into your sloppy little whore’s mouth.”

“Might have to take me down for that,” Laurent said lightly. “I don’t think your cock can reach all the way up here. Maybe if we get you a chair.”

Govart hit him in the gut. Laurent felt awful, screaming nausea as the breath was forced from his lungs, and his shoulders became alight with a fresh wave of pain as he was forced to hunch forward. Alright. Fuck. Fuck.

The knife came up, a long silver arc, and cut the ropes. Laurent collapsed to the ground heavily, head smacking hard into the stone floor and shoulders screaming as they were finally allowed to relax. His injured shoulder collided with the ground, and Laurent couldn’t help the scream that came from between his lips.

Govart’s mistake. Laurent muffled his shrieks by biting his lip so hard it bled and popped his dislocated shoulder back into place.

“I love the sounds you make, princess,” Govart smirked.

He loomed tall over Laurent, and Laurent forced himself to ignore the pain from the knife wound. Ignore it. The pain from his dislocated shoulder had vanished and with its absence came a rush of euphoria. He wriggled out from between Govart’s thighs, using his smaller, more nimble body-

And Govart caught him, tossing him bodily onto the floor. His head smacked once again into hard stone, and Laurent’s vision went spotty, black. By the time he was able to blink himself back to consciousness, to focus, Govart was over top of him again.

With a smirk, Govart pressed his knee into Laurent’s torn shoulder, and the scream tore out of him unbidden. His mouth wide open, Govart stuck his thumb between his lips, running it gently against Laurent’s hard palate.

For the past four years, at least, Laurent had been waiting in awful, bone-shattering terror for the day that Govart would try to rape him. The night in the palace, the taste of chalis heavy on his tongue, Laurent was sure it would be then. The guards would have their way with him, and they’d leave his mutilated body for Govart. Govart didn’t need him to be pristine – he might even like him better that way, broken and begging for death.

Laurent had been waiting for this moment, but that didn’t stop the all consuming dread of Govart’s thighs pressing into his shoulders to hold him down. He struggled, feebly, mind and body weak. His hands were stiff against his sides, pinned down by Govart’s legs. Animal terror overtook him, and Laurent fought hard against the dead weight of Govart’s body.

“You never thought I could do this to you,” Govart breathed, savoring the moment, savoring Laurent’s terror.

Laurent could not help but hiss, “Stick your cock in something? No, I simply worry you don’t have the capacity to do much else.”

The knife was in Laurent’s mouth, then, and Laurent’s breath came sharply, shakily. The blade pressed into his tongue. Govart had been right – there was no situation where Laurent expected Govart to actually succeed. Even as he heard the rustle of fabric at Govart’s belt, Laurent could not believe this was actually happening.

He tossed his head to the side and closed his lips tightly.

When he was a child, sleeping beside his uncle, he imagined someone walking in on them, taking in his naked body and killing his uncle in disgust. Sometimes, when his uncle had been inside him, he’d bury his head in the pillows and listen to the slight sounds coming from outside, hoping any set of footsteps might be an approaching servant, begging to hear something other than the low grunts and groans that hit wetly against his back.

He’d close his eyes and imagine Auguste bursting through the door, handsome face white with fury. His sword would go right through his uncle’s chest, and he’d hold Laurent as his uncle lay dead on the floor, rocking him while he wept.

Auguste never came. No one was coming now.

Laurent would not make this easy for Govart – he twisted his head to the side, forcing Govart to straighten out, all the while he struggled and writhed beneath him, lips pressed firmly together. Govart was angry at him, thinking he’d give up and let it happen like so many other of the boys he’d fucked, frozen in terror.

Govart pinched Laurent’s nose closed. All of a sudden, a band closed around his chest. His lungs throbbed, ached, but if Laurent could force his mouth to stay closed until he passed out, he would. He’d die before he took a single breath.

Laurent’s body betrayed him. Vision going black, Laurent felt the sweet relief of air as his base need to breathe took over, and his lips parted.

The knife was sharp against Laurent’s cheek when Govart plunged it in to the gaping cavity of Laurent’s mouth, the tip pressing dangerously against his tongue. Govart twisted it, not cutting him, just forcing his lips wider. Laurent pressed them down, feeling the sharp bite of steel against his mouth, but it was too late.

“If you close your mouth,” Govart sneered, “My knife will rip you apart.”

And then he forced his cock inside, and Laurent’s world went white.

He could not think, could barely breathe. His eyes went wide, as though confused. His body became hyper aware of the sounds in the room – Govart’s heavy breathing, the crackling of a torch, the wet sounds his mouth made.

It did not feel like it was happening to him. He heard everything like an outside observer as everything faded to cold, numbing white.

Laurent realized belatedly that he had frozen. He had stopped writhing. Govart was looking down at him in triumph, and Laurent met his gaze, placidly, because he could not process what was happening to him. It was as though he’d shut off.

Weak, he thought, weak. He felt like a child again, like if he looked up he’d see his uncle’s face above him and not Govart’s. It caused a surge of helplessness through him that nearly brought tears to his eyes.

It had not mattered. Nothing he had done had mattered. His body would never belong to him, and his only comfort was that he at least knew some sense of pleasure in his life before having it all ripped violently away. Had it really been that long ago that Damen had taken him apart slowly, softly? Touching him like he was the most tender thing in the world?

Govart was angry. Perhaps he’d expected something different from Laurent. Had he really expected Laurent to weep? To scream?

Govart was angry, and his movements were erratic. He was bearing down harder to try to get a reaction from Laurent, but Laurent could not feel his own throat. His grip slipped on the knife in Laurent’s mouth for just a second – it twisted so that it was horizontal, the blade flat against Laurent’s teeth.

Laurent’s mind switched back on. He bit down, hard.

Govart screamed.

Laurent latched onto him with all the strength in his jaw, breathing through his nose even though the reek of sweat made him gag. Govart was howling like a wild animal, and Laurent tasted musky blood in his mouth, boiling like molten iron. Govart was wild with agony, clumsy and stupid in his movements, and he involuntarily ripped the knife from Laurent’s mouth.

It was just pain. Base, animal pain. The knife sliced into the inside of his cheek, drew a line of blood from his lip, but it was out of his mouth and Laurent clenched his teeth as hard as he could now that the intrusion was gone.

Blood was pooling in his mouth, dripping down his chin. It was hot, sticky, clinging to his cheeks, and Govart was screaming, and Laurent felt the thunderous pounding of his own heart in his chest.

Govart came free of him, tumbling backwards, part of his cock still in Laurent’s mouth. Laurent spat it out instantly, wriggling out from under Govart’s weight, while he clutched at his crotch and screamed. Laurent’s chin was still bloody, his eyes wild, adrenaline coursing through him.

He crawled forward, Govart screaming, “You bit it off! You fucking bit it off! I’ll fucking kill you-”

Govart was a beast, injured and dangerous. Laurent could outmaneuver him, but certainly couldn’t match him in pure brute force. He wriggled away on his back, lacerations dragging agonizingly against the stone floor, thinking if he only could get far enough away-

Govart’s full weight collided with his back, and Laurent wheezed, choking as Govart crushed the wind out of his lungs. He writhed, helplessly, on his belly.

“You bitch,” Govart was spitting, “You fucking bitch! You bit it off!”

Laurent panted, trying and failing to unseat Govart. His body throbbed, his heart pounding. His mouth tasted like blood, the back of his throat heavy and rancid, trying not to think of what he’d let Govart do to him.

Govart might actually kill him. His uncle would be furious.

Perhaps Laurent miscalculated. He hadn’t been thinking. He simply needed Govart to get out of his mouth, because the sheer, terrible helplessness had been overwhelming.

Laurent, was so, so tired.

Govart stuck his fingers between Laurent’s teeth and wrenched his jaw open. His muscles popped at the force with which Govart opened his mouth, grimy fingernails digging into his tongue.

“You’ll regret that,” Govart was snarling, “You’ll regret that, bitch.”

Then Govart was placing the sharp, bloodsoaked edge of the knife against Laurent’s tongue, and all Laurent knew was blindingly hot pain.

“Laurent,” Damen murmured, voice soft with sleep. “Come back to bed.”

Laurent’s lips opened to say, “In a minute, love,” but he caught himself, this time, before any sound came out. He clenched his fists, biting his lip until it bled. A wave of nausea so thick it made Laurent want to scream rose up in his throat. Damen shifted on the straw mattress in the bedroom of the inn, and Laurent saw in the gentle, blush-soft candlelight, how his expression furrowed with concern. When had anyone ever looked so tenderly at him? Laurent was not sure he deserved it.

Laurent allowed Damen a small smile, still biting back the bile in his throat. Slowly, his breathing evened out, and he put up one finger to indicate he still needed a moment to finish the letter. This wasn’t suspicious, Laurent knew, staring down at the paper with some guilt. In the weeks after his assault, he struggled intensely to fall asleep, waking up in the middle of the night with the words coming out of him, so clear in his dreams but nothing more than garbled letters and bitten off syllables when he woke.

So, he started writing. His words, the things he couldn’t say – what he might need to proclaim to Jord and his company in the morning, spoken by Damen.

Trust was a tricky thing, for him.

Damen had proven, time and time again, that he was a good, honorable man. He’d been so attentive to Laurent’s needs, so much so that Laurent thought he didn’t even need his tongue anymore for Damen to understand him, he knew him so intimately.

But trust was hard. His uncle had spent the miserable remainder of Laurent’s childhood destroying his trust in those that would claim to love him, and had spent Laurent’s teen years sewing distrust of Laurent in anyone else. Needing to ask Damen to read for him, because he could not speak himself, hurt so terribly Laurent wasn’t sure he’d survive it.

That was why he was doing this.

Damen nestled back into the mattress, smiling softly at Laurent, just watching him write.

Laurent was practiced at deception. He was sure, when Damen woke tomorrow morning and saw his side of the bed cold and empty, he would be surprised. If Laurent struggled to trust even those who would love him, he was expert in making those who would love him lose their trust in him first.

He would ride hard through the night, atop a stolen horse, and by the time Damen put together what was happening, it would simply be too late.

Laurent would be before his uncle, silenced, speechless, unable to defend himself.

He would die. In some ways, Laurent felt that he’d died long ago, and he was finally letting himself go.

It was alright, Laurent told himself. He had set it all up, so even upon his death, his uncles crimes would not go unknown. What would happen subsequently, though, Laurent admitted he didn’t know. He could imagine, but he didn’t know, which was an uncomfortable feeling. Strangely, though, he didn’t mind.

Laurent was so, so tired. His one last weapon had been stolen from him, and he simply wanted to close his eyes and sleep.

Damen needed to know about this, though. Someone needed to know about this.

The secret of his past had been slowly killing him, wearing him down for years, and years, and years. They had informed every action he’d taken, every sleepless night that had left him trembling and drenched in cold sweat as he stared up into an inky black sky. His uncle had raped him, and no one had ever come to save him, and he was so tired.

Laurent wrote about his uncle fucking him in sparse detail. There was no need to make Damen ill, after all. He simply wrote that the first time, he’d been drunk, drugged – given chalis. When he woke up the next morning, he hadn’t understood why he hurt so badly, but he knew that something had changed. And so it went on, and on, and on, until it had stopped, and just like after his brother’s death, he was once again alone. It was agony, being abandoned like that. It took years for Laurent to understand the true horror of what had been done to him because he missed his uncle’s attention so much it hurt.

I know you have heard of my bookishness, and now you gaze in awe at my quick mind (don’t think I haven’t noticed, lover). But Damen, believe me, I did not understand what had happened to me until a year after it had already ended.

He felt guilty writing it. Perhaps if he’d understood sooner, if he’d fought against his uncle to begin with, hadn’t let his soft words and gifts and much needed attention lull him back to silence, he wouldn’t feel so miserable now.

Damen might be disgusted, Laurent knew. Damen might read the words on the page, think of how he’d spread his legs for his uncle – willingly! Or, at least, a traumatized, lonely child’s approximation of willing. Damen might be disgusted, but that did not matter, because Laurent would not be alive to see it. That was good – if he did see it, it might kill him before he even got to his uncle.

He set the quill down. The letter was written. Now, at least, someone would know.

It felt freeing, in a way. This truth had been such a weight on him since he was barely older than a child. No matter what Damen thought of him afterwards, finally, someone would know.

The ink dried slowly. Laurent leaned back in his chair and turned to Damen, who had fallen asleep again. He looked peaceful, and for just a moment, Laurent let himself imagine it – he would go back to bed, safe in Damen’s arms, and there he’d remain until they woke in the morning, a sleepy tangle of limbs. Damen would tilt his chin up and kiss him, telling him without words that he was still perfect, and Damen would say that they’d figure it out, together. Maybe Laurent would even believe him.

It was a fantasy, nothing more.

Still, though, it was a nice one.

Laurent allowed himself to slip back to bed, if only for a little while, and he smiled when Damen’s arms wrapped unconsciously around him.

Pain was the only thing Laurent knew.

His eyes watered unconsciously, and he cursed his own weakness. The room blurred around him, the firelight of the torches going hazy and indistinct. His mouth was very, very wet, and somewhere very far back, Laurent tasted blood.

Govart was cackling. His laughter was so high pitched it sounded like screaming – everywhere in Laurents head came the sound of screaming. Govart threw something off to the side, and it landed with a slick splattering sound. Laurent didn’t look at it – he could not. He would go insane if he did.

Laurent didn’t believe it had actually happened. He thought, maybe, if he closed his eyes, this would all have been a dream.

The wet, sticky liquid in his mouth was overflowing now. His lips, slack with shock and terror and pain, could not hold it back in. The thought of swallowing it made him want to gag.

His chin was wet. His eyes were blurry. Laurent could barely think for the pain in his body.

He tried to say to Govart, who was still scream-laughing, bloody knife in hand, “Are you upset you never got to properly fuck me?” but only blood and garbled sounds came out.

“Look at you,” Govart wheezed, his own hand sticky with blood from where he’d pressed it against his crotch. “Look at you. Your biggest weapon is gone, princess. The cat’s been declawed!”

There was a wet spot on the back of Laurent’s pants. It felt strangely cold, and Laurent remembered Govart crawling onto his back, wrestling Laurent to the floor. It was cold and still wet, blood from Govart’s front, now seeping through Govart’s own pants.

Everything was vivid, pulsing, copper-tasting blood.

“I could say the same to you,” was what Laurent wanted to say, but he could not. The cavity of his mouth was hollow and filled with blood. No matter how he tried, he could not force the wriggling stump by his throat to make the sounds he needed to.

This isn’t happening, Laurent thought, blood curdling with terror, This isn’t happening.

Of all the horrors he’d been through, he had never imagined anything like this.

He wished desperately, irrationally for his brother. He would give up everything, he would die tomorrow if it meant his brother would be here with him now. Everything hurt, everything hurt.

In an instant, though, the thought was gone. He’d trained every day for years to override his emotional, childlike response, and like muscle memory it kicked then.

Focus, Laurent, he thought. He could not die, could not do anything if it meant his uncle got to live another day, hurt more boys. He needed to focus.

Govart was unstable and injured – so was Laurent, and Laurent was already weaker than Govart, so it was hopeless – Laurent grit his teeth and willed himself to stop. Govart could not keep himself calm like Laurent could, not in the fact of mutilation like this. The knife was in his hands, but swinging wildly, and held in a grip slick with blood.

If Laurent could stand, there would be a torch not two steps away he could use as a weapon.

So, step one, disarm Govart. Step two, bash Govart’s fucking skull in.

Laurent took a deep breath. Blood hit the back of his throat.

He forced himself up, knocking an already unbalanced Govart just enough that Laurent could wriggle out from under him. Once he could bend his knees, he sent a kick in the direction of Govart’s bloody hand, and the knife slipped from his grip.

Muscle memory. Laurent was not like Damen, like Auguste was once. He couldn’t afford to fight fair, so he wouldn’t.

When he stood, his world spun, and Laurent let out a groan as he nearly tumbled to the floor again. His hand shot out and just barely managed to grab the cell bars. His breath came out heavy, and when he opened his mouth again more blood trickledout. He could feel its wetness on his chin, now hot and throbbing down his neck and to his collarbones. Soon, he realized, he’d have lost enough blood that it would be dangerous.

He couldn’t think about that now.

His vision was just clear enough, so he lunged for the torch. It was wood in wrought iron, achingly heavy in his hands, and his shoulder shrieked in pain as the weight pulled at his torn ligaments. Laurent thought he might have shrieked too, but he couldn’t tell. His throat was raw, and he could not think about why.

Govart lunged towards him, and Laurent brought the lit torch in a flaming arc, casting eerie shadows on the cell wall that looked like the monsters in Laurent’s childhood nightmares.

It connected with Govart’s head. Govart was knocked backwards, sprawling to the ground.

Laurent breathed, ragged and aching. The wet blood spot on the front of Govart’s pants was growing, and Laurent remembered the white numbness in his body as Govart fucked his throat.

I swore it, Laurent thought miserably, furious at the tears that made his eyes burn, I swore no one would touch me again.

His misery subsided in an instant, though, replaced as had been all of his more vulnerable emotions with pure, burning rage. The thought of the boy who would cry to his brother when something had made him sad was so alien it almost did not feel real – it was so much easier to be angry. Anger was rational. Anger was burning. In anger, Laurent could imagine a dozen things he’d do to the people who hurt him, and he could sit down to put those plans into motion.

Laurent straddled Govart. The flame was flickering, but still a bright orange burst of light. Its heat was overwhelming and thick like fog, adding sweat to the sick number of fluids that made his shirt cling to his trembling body.

Govart’s mouth was open, panting, tongue lolled out in dizziness. Laurent laughed, and laughed again when he felt the wet blood in his mouth spill out. Laurent leaned over Govart, tender as a lover, and parted his lips. Blood spilled from his mouth into Govart’s, and when Govart began to writhe and squirm, Laurent brought the torch down into Govart’s mouth.

Govart screamed.

Good, Laurent thought, laughing, Good. There was a sick popping, crackling sound, like a suckling pig roast over a fire, and the smell of burning flesh that was like no meat Laurent had ever smelled before.

Laurent could watch Govart burn forever, could watch him scream until the flames licked his throat and he could scream no more for the pain.

He could, but he needed Govart alive.

Laurent pulled the torch back. His eyes were dry.

He picked up the knife and put it in the fire, heating it, watching as the blood on it dried to an ugly brown. The smell of hot blood was revolting, but Laurent didn’t stop until the blade was a glistening red with heat – and then he brought the flat to his mutilated tongue.

Laurent screamed. He’d thought his tongue being cut out was the worst agony he’d experienced, but it was nothing like cauterizing his own wound. His eyes went wild, tears streaming out of them, and he realized the smell of burning flesh was so much sicker when it was his own.

He screamed, and screamed, and screamed-

And that’s when the cellar door opened.

“Laurent,” Damen breathed. He was trembling – why was he trembling? His curls were plastered to his forehead with sweat, and blood soaked through the linen of his undershirt from dispatching the guards above. He smelled like horse, and perhaps had ridden straight from where they were supposed to meet at Charcy to here.

Laurent wondered, wildly, if that was how he had looked at Marlas before he cut Auguste down.

Laurent moaned in pain. It was all he could do. The blackened stump of his tongue stung like a thousand needles had been ripped through it, his shoulder throbbed and hissed like an untended kettle on the fire. Guion was there, so shocked and horrified that Laurent almost wanted to laugh. The fact that his uncle’s cruelty still could surprise others, even those in his innermost circle, was truly stunning.

“Laurent,” Damen said again, tears in his eyes, hands up like Laurent was a frightened, feral dog. “Laurent, are you alright? Say something?”

Laurent laughed. That was so cruelly funny he couldn’t stand it, and all he could do was cover his mouth with his hand and laugh until he couldn’t breathe. Blood covered him from lips to chest, his hair was wild and damp with sweat and blood – he must’ve looked insane. He must’ve looked like the man his uncle tried to tell everyone he was.

Damen looked horrified. He shouted, “Laurent, please!”

Laurent stopped laughing. He froze, eyes huge and wild, and slowly opened his lips for Damen to see inside.

Damen lurched backwards, covering his mouth in horror. He made an ugly retching sound, hunching forward. Damen had seen countless dead on the battlefield, Laurent thought bitterly, and now he was brought low by the homespun horror of the Veretian court.

Laurent laughed again. He thought he might be dying.

This is it, lover, he thought, My uncle has ruined me forever. Travel back to Ios with my men and leave me to the dogs.

Damen came in close. Laurent froze, wild-eyed – and then Damen wrapped his arms around him, so tight it squeezed the breath from Laurent’s lungs.

“I was so worried,” Damen breathed, hand clenching against Laurent’s sweat-slick scalp. “When you didn’t meet us there. This is my fault, Laurent. I was too late.”

That was so unexpected it made all of Laurent’s swirling, buzzing thoughts stop in his head.

How could Damen blame himself for being too late? Damen had no cause to be searching for him, not when Laurent did not meet him at Charcy, not after everything Laurent had said to him, done to him. Somehow, he had come free from the battle and made his way to Laurent spurred on only by a foolish hope and the cogs of his mind turning something like Laurent’s.

Damen’s arms were warm around Laurent’s shoulders. It felt like just yesterday that Laurent had Damen’s cock inside him, listening to the soft, breathy moans he’d made. Damen had been so gentle, letting him take him in slowly, letting Laurent feel him like it was the first time he’d been fucked.

It had felt like the first time.

Now, though, Laurent felt it in his throat, felt not just Govart but the torture from his uncle years ago, tears wet and sparkling on his lashes as fear shot down his spine, though he couldn’t have explained why at the time.

He could not cry. He would not.

Damen pulled back. He brought out a rag and dabbed at the sticky blood on Laurent’s chin, down his neck. It was partially dried, now, and Laurent imagined how he would be left with rust-brown streaks from the corners of his lips with all the blood in the middle dabbed away.

He turned to Govart, a weeping, cursing mess on the floor. His words came just as garbled as Laurent’s – even moreso, because his tongue was still there, albeit blistered and burned. He sounded uncanny, like the words that came in a dream.

Damens eyes flitted down, to the bloody mess in the front of Govart’s pants. He said, slowly, “Laurent, did you cut Govart’s cock off?”

Laurent allowed himself a small, shaky smile. He clacked his teeth together, indicating, I bit him.

Damen half-smiled, and Laurent knew he’d understood. Laurent realized too late the implication – his face froze, whole body suddenly very cold. His stomach swooped like it did in the moments after he’d realized he was going to fall from his horse, when it was too late to right himself. With Damen, these things happened in slow motion – Laurent felt as though he were swimming through syrup, through blood, as he watched the slow contortion of Damen’s face to confusion as he saw Laurent’s, then to horror, and then to single-minded rage.

Laurent flinched. In the torchlight, Damen looked feral. He picked up his sword and lunged towards Govart – Laurent barely had a moment to react, stepping in front of Damen with his heart pounding in his chest. Would Damen cut him down to enact his revenge?

Damen froze. His voice was broken as he said, “Why, Laurent? He raped you.”

Laurent recoiled as though Damen had slapped him. Damen must have seen the wild-eyed terror in his eyes, for he softened immediately, and when he cupped Laurent’s cheek and brought their foreheads together, there was no trace of the feral anger in him.

Damen was impossibly soft. Being comforted after pain, now that was new to Laurent.

Laurent took Damen’s hand in his, holding his bronze palm up, and traced the letters out slowly with one trembling finger.

We need him.

Damen nodded. He understood, even if it cause him great pain not to kill Govart in cold blood for touching Laurent. His cheeks were flushed with anger, breath coming slowly andwith a deliberateness that soothed Laurent.

Laurent took Damen’s hand and curled his fingers, pressing soft kisses to every knuckle, one after the other. How wonderful, to not be alone.

In the cell, Guion laughed. Laurent had almost forgotten he was there.

“How sweet,” Guion snarled, and Laurent imagined him opening the door to his littlest son’s rooms in the middle of the night, letting the Regent slip inside. “How tender – but Damianos, the man who was once in line to be king of Akielos surely can’t be content with Govart’s seconds?”

Laurent bore the insult with dignity, with silence. He was used to all sorts of insults slung his way, some true, some false. His gut curdled with it, but his face was impassive.

Damen’s face was not.

All of the color had drained from him, his fists shook with rage. It surprised Laurent, and for a moment he imagined that a few months ago he’d have been pleased to know of Laurent’s violation. But no – even then, even when Laurent was at the height of his cruelty to the man who had killed his brother, he had not stood idly by while the regent’s plan to kill him was put in place.

Now, in the present moment, Damen looked to Laurent. He said, with incredible restraint, “Laurent, do we need Guion, too?”

Guion’s smile froze instantly.

Laurent looked only at Damen, and he let a long, slow smile spread over his face.

Guion had a wife, after all.

He shook his head no.

Laurent could still taste blood in his mouth.

It was late. The scent of the cellar, of copper blood, had faded somewhat – he’d been bathed in hot water, not quite as luxurious as the baths at Arles, but welcome after the long hours stewing in his own blood and sweat. There was a cloth with a small sliver of fine soap that Damen used to wash the flaky, rusted blood from his shoulder, from his chin. Laurent thought back to the baths in Arles. They felt like a lifetime ago, where he’d had Damen flogged for touching him. Before his brother’s killer became the one man he truly trusted, before he’d fucked his brother’s killer willingly.

He’d been seen by the physician. He’d had soft foods to eat, and he could even taste them, somewhat, when he’d pushed the porridge back to his throat and swallowed it.

Guion was dead, his head on a pike outside the castle. Govart was being kept tortuously alive in his cell, the bleeding stopped. His cock would be eternally stunted, much to Laurent’s sadistic glee. His cock had not been stunted, though, when he’d fucked Laurent’s throat – as such his glee was tempered.

Laurent was used to taking the sad, scared parts of himself and hiding them deep beneath his skin where no one could find them, replacing them with barbs directed only at himself. Perhaps this was simply what he deserved for spreading for the man who’d killed Auguste in the first place – a reminder that he didn’t deserve to enjoy sex, didn’t deserve to feel pleasure.

He brought his hands up to his throat and swallowed thickly. It was like swallowing a stone.

His hands were shaking.

Before him, on the desk, were a set of writing instruments – parchment, quills, ink. He could not speak, but he could not forgo his responsibility to his men. He would write everything he needed, and Damen would read it out for him. Jord could not read quite well enough for this.

Laurent was helpless, now, without Damen, and it felt like another punishment.

You fucked him, and now you will need to rely on him.

His thoughts went, as they often did in his darker moments, to his uncle. His uncle, whispering gently in his ear, now now, Laurent, there’s no need to cry. It was a misunderstanding, nothing untoward happened. And then, when that stopped working, Dear child, whatever will the others think if they found out you’d come to me? Why, they’d be disgusted.

For years, Laurent had kept his silence about what his uncle had done to him. He was so sure no one would believe him, and if they did, they’d be disgusted with him. Now, with his uncle’s full approval, Govart had silenced him for good.

Laurent would never speak again. He would never tell anyone that his uncle had raped him.

When Damen fucked him, it was like he’d slowly, gently parted Laurent’s emotional walls as though they were no heavier than a gossamer curtain. Feelings had flowed out of him, and when it was done, Laurent hadn’t been able to close himself off fast enough.

They flowed out of him now, but it wasn’t a gentle stream of comfort, a tender feeler being sent out to test the world around him as suddenly somewhere he could find pleasure – Laurent realized belatedly that he was shaking, that he was whimpering, his shoulders trembling so hard the still-healing wound ached.

All of the paper in the world wouldn’t matter when he could never look his uncle in the eye and scream, I know what you did to me! It was wrong, and it was cruel, and it was never my fault!

The sight of it made Laurent violently angry. He let out a roar of rage, sending the ink, the quills, the parchment flying. It clattered to the floor – the ink bottle shattered, the quills dusted the ground like snowfall.

Laurent crouched down, the sound of screaming suddenly loud as trumpets in his head, and began to rip and tear at the paper, the feathers. He wanted it away from him, he wanted it destroyed.

Someone was calling his name.

Someone was grabbing his shoulders from behind.

Laurent screamed, wanting to feel it rip his already broken throat open, and whirled around to hit, to tear-

Damen gazed down at him, brown eyes unfathomably sad.

He breathed simply, “Laurent. You’re safe.”

Damen had opened him up so gently when they’d made love. Now, he opened him up again, and Laurent froze in horror as his body rebelled against him, and he began to weep.

“It’s alright,” Damen breathed as Laurent sunk into him, boneless and so tired, “It’s alright, you’re safe.”

Laurent had begun to wail, to beat his fists into the front of Damen’s shirt in frustration, in fury. He was throwing a fucking tantrum, and it was humiliating. He hadn’t thrown tantrums since he was a child, and now Damen would think of him as one. He was just so, so hurt.

Damen didn’t pull away, though, not even as Laurent’s anger had been screamed out of him, and all that was left were his sad, desperate whimpers, the noises from all the things he wanted to say but couldn’t.

He rocked him back and forth, back and forth, like Auguste used to after he’d had a nightmare.

Like Laurent had always desperately wanted someone to. When he was in the cellar, hanging by his arms, he’d wished for someone to come for him, and no one had. Damen was here now, though, whispering reassuring words into Laurent’s ear as the candle in the room burned low. He wrapped his arms around him like a warm blanket, and Laurent couldn’t help but melt into the touch.

It felt like a fantasy. How often had Laurent, when he was still a child, cried alone in his rooms? What had Laurent done that as an adult, he finally got to be held?

There were things that Laurent still could not understand – the way Damen held him, love in his arms, his touch, his voice. He was not used to it. He didn’t understand it. He was afraid of it, because for him, love always came with an expiration date.

There were things that Laurent couldn’t imagine – in four weeks time, Damen would wake to the cool gray light of morning, read the confession letter Laurent had left for him, and immediately set off to the sham trial that the regent had set. In four weeks and one day’s time, he would see Laurent kneeling before his uncle and not hesitate to send his sword right through the regent’s body, driving it into him until it tore out his back like meat skewered over an open fire.

In the moment, though, Laurent understood that Damen was holding him. Damen was comforting him. It would not erase what had happened to him, but for the time being, it was enough.