Captive Prince:Book One of the Captive Prince Trilogy(10)

By: C. S. Pacat

The blindfold was removed.

He would never get used to the ornamentation. From its arched ceiling to the depression in which lapped the water of the baths, the room was covered in tiny painted tiles, gleaming in blues, greens and gold. All sound was reduced to hollow echoes and curling steam. A series of curved alcoves for dalliance (currently empty) ringed the walls, by each of them braziers in fantastic shapes. The fretted doors were not wood, but metal. The only instrument of restraint was an incongruous heavy wooden dock. It did not match the rest of the baths at all, and Damen tried not to think that it had been brought here expressly for him. Averting his eyes from it, he found himself looking at the metal intaglio of the door. Figures twined around one another, all male. Their positions were not ambiguous. He shifted his eyes back to the baths.

“They are natural hot springs,” Radel explained, as though to a child. “The water comes from a great underground river that is hot.”

A great underground river that is hot. Damen said, “In Akielos, we use a system of aqueducts to achieve the same effect.”

Radel frowned. “I suppose you think that is very clever.” He was already signalling to one of the servants, his manner slightly distracted.

They stripped him and washed him without tying him up, and Damen behaved with admirable docility, resolved to prove that he could be trusted with small freedoms. Perhaps it worked, or perhaps Radel was used to tractable charges—an overseer, not a jailor—for he said, “You will soak. Five minutes.”

Curved steps descended into the water. His escort retreated outside; his collar was released from its chain.

Damen immersed himself in the water, enjoying the brief, unexpected sensation of freedom. The water was so hot it was almost on the threshold of tolerance, yet it felt good. The heat seeped into him, melting the ache of abused limbs and loosening muscles that were locked hard with tension.

Radel had thrown a substance onto the braziers as he left, so that they flared and then smoked. Almost immediately, the room had filled with an over-sweet scent, mingling with the steam. It perfused the senses, and Damen felt himself relax further.

His thoughts, drifting a little, found their way to Laurent.

You have a scar. Damen’s fingers slid across his wet chest, reaching his collarbone and then following the line of the faint pale scar, feeling an echo of the uneasiness that had stirred in him last night.

It was Laurent’s older brother who had inflicted that scar, six years ago, in battle at Marlas. Auguste, the heir and pride of Vere. Damen recalled his dark golden hair, the starburst blazon of the Crown Prince on his shield splattered over with mud, with blood, dented and almost unrecognisable, like his once-fine filigree armour. He recalled his own desperation in those moments, the scrape of metal against metal, the harsh sounds of breathing that might have been his own, and the feeling of fighting as he never had, all out, for his life.

He pushed the memory to one side, only to have it replaced by another. Darker than the first, and older. Somewhere in the depths of his mind, one fight resonated with another. Damen’s fingers dropped below the water line. The other scar Damen carried was lower on his body. Not Auguste. Not on a battlefield.

Kastor had run him through on his thirteenth birthday, during training.

He remembered that day very clearly. He had scored a hit against Kastor for the first time, and when he had pulled off his helm, giddy with triumph, Kastor had smiled and suggested that they swap their wooden practice blades for real swords.

Damen had felt proud. He had thought, I am thirteen and a man, Kastor fights me like a man. Kastor had not held back against him, and he had been so proud of that, even as the blood pushed out from beneath his hands. Now he remembered the black look in Kastor’s eyes and thought that he had been wrong about many things.

“Time’s up,” said Radel.

Damen nodded. He placed his hands on the edge of the baths. The ridiculous golden collar and cuffs still adorned his throat and wrists.

The braziers were now covered, but the lingering scent of the incense was a little dizzying. Damen shook the momentary weakness away and pushed himself up out of the hot baths, streaming water.

Radel was staring at him, wide-eyed. Damen ran a hand through his hair, wringing out the water. Radel’s eyes widened. When Damen took a step forward, Radel took an involuntary step back.