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They’re on a stroll through the garden together when Laurent first brings it up.

“Are you familiar with traditional Veretian courtship customs, Damianos?” he asks, fingers trailing idly over a rosebush.

Damen watches him, examining his face for traces of the ever-present hidden meaning behind Laurent’s words.

“Not as familiar as I’d like,” he finally admits, “are you trying to tell me I’m doing something wrong?”

His words have a teasing lilt to them, and Laurent raises a perfectly manicured eyebrow.

“On the contrary,” he says, “You’ve followed nearly every aspect of the etiquette. The gifts. The chaperoned outings.”

Laurent glances pointedly back at Jord, who’s resolutely following behind them by roughly twenty paces, a pained twist to his mouth as he attempts to give the young princes a resemblance of privacy.

Damen hums, waiting for Laurent to get to the point.

“You said nearly.”

“I did.”

Damen resists rolling his eyes, choosing instead to gently clasp Laurent’s hand, forcing the blonde to halt and look up at him.

“Are you planning on telling me what I’ve forgotten, or is this another puzzle for me to solve?”

Laurent ponders for a moment.

“In Vere,” he begins, slowly, “It’s customary for a man to ask permission before beginning a courtship.”

Damen considers this.

“Well then,” he says, reaching over Laurent’s head to pluck a pure-white rose. He drops to a knee, grinning earnestly as he offers it to the other prince.

“Laurent of Vere, would you do me the honor of allowing me to court you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Damianos,” Laurent says, snatching the flower from him with nimble fingers, “It’s not my permission you need.”

Before Damen can open his mouth to form a question, Laurent turns on his heel and begins strolling the other direction.

“Goodnight, Damen,” he calls over his shoulder.

Jord hurries to keep up. Damen remains on his knees in the grass, confusion washing over him.

Laurent keeps the rose.

 

.

 

Damen does have a grasp on Veretian courtship etiquette, despite what he may have told Laurent. He knows it is customary for a man beginning a courtship to ask the permission of his intendeds’ father. But Laurent’s father, the late King, had passed away years ago, shortly followed by the Queen. He knows Laurent well enough to know that he couldn’t be bothered with the permission of the Council. Which only leaves one option: Auguste, the Veretian King.

Damen had met him in Marlas years ago, of course. He’d been slightly in awe of the older then-Prince, who had spoken over his father and singlehandedly convinced King Theomedes to sign a proclamation of peace.

Since then, however, he’d known of Auguste only through rumors. He was a great King, Damen heard; he had managed to solve the border dispute in Patras and found a solution for the rising grain prices in Vask, all in his first few months as King. Theomedes spoke of him with grudging respect, foreign dignitaries with open admiration.

Damen had anticipated meeting with him in Vere, but a minor skirmish in the borderlands had sent the King away just days before Damen’s arrival. He’d met his wife, the beautiful, kind Queen Hélène, and glimpsed their newborn son, a tiny, wrinkly thing called Etienne. But the King is notably absent, with only rumors circulated as to when he will return.

He dearly hopes it’s soon, as this is very much a proposal he’d like to make in person, rather than through letters. It’s only been a few weeks, but Damen already knows that Laurent would not take kindly to his future being planned out from afar, through messy letters exchanged between his brother and Damen.

Damen quite looks forward to this conversation, to getting the approval of the one person Laurent cares about more than anything. He hopes the King returns soon. Until then, however, he’ll settle for asking for advice on how to best bring up the subject.

 

.

 

The truth is, Damen had never intended to court Laurent. He’d been sent to Vere to assist in brokering a new trade deal. He’d been meant to spend a week or two negotiating with the Veretian Council, proving to his father that he had a clear enough understanding of politics to successfully govern a kingdom.

But after catching a glimpse of the youngest prince, that duty had been put to the side.

He’d met Laurent before, years ago, also at Marlas, when the prince was barely old enough to ride alone. But the memory of that initial meeting didn’t hold a candle to Laurent now. The Veretian prince was dangerously beautiful, and it was clear from the way he carried himself that he knew it.

Damen had frozen in place when Prince Laurent walked into the banquet hall, that first night. The room seemed to still at his entrance, all courtiers turning to stare at the porcelain skin, the golden hair, the crystal-blue eyes.

He was stunning, the kind of beautiful Damen only imagined in fairy tales and legends. And he was standing, in the flesh, just paces away.

Damen had been smitten from the moment he first laid eyes on him.

Laurent hadn’t made it easy for him.

His first attempt had been an absolute disaster.

His fault, really, for thinking the notoriously icy Prince of Vere would respond to his charms the same way the demure slaves in Akielos did.

Laurent is vicious in his derision, a trait that shouldn’t make Damen’s stomach flutter the way it had. He allows Damen to stay bent slightly at the waist, hand outstretched for a dance for too long, raises one perfectly arched eyebrow at him after his request. Around them, half the court freezes, breathless, waiting to see how the Prince of Vere will react.

“I don’t dance,” he says finally, wrinkling his nose.

Damen just smiles openly, “It isn’t hard, I can teach you.”

That seems to be the entirely wrong thing to say, as Laurent’s expression of contempt only deepens.

“I believe I said I don’t dance, Prince Damianos,” Laurent practically spits the title at him, “Not that I can’t. I assure you, there’s no skill I require your instruction in.”

That makes Damen falter, his smile flickering, “I didn’t mean to say…I only wanted…”

“A pretty partner?” Laurent mocks, “I assure you, we’ve no shortage of beautiful faces in Vere. I’m sure you’ll find someone willing to endure your bumbling attempts at waltzing.”

With that, he spins on his heel, gliding from the ballroom with more grace than anyone Damen’s ever seen.

There are a few titters around him, and Damen feels just a spark of embarrassment before Queen Hélène takes pity on him and invites him to dance.

 

.

 

It’s the Queen’s kindness that leads Damen to approach her for advice. They’ve struck up a friendly acquaintanceship, and Damen finds her counsel considerably more helpful in dealing with Veretian politics than his own advisors’. He assumes this guidance will extend to how best to interact with the King, as well.

“How is King Auguste,” Damen asks, when Hélène mentions his pending return to the palace, “I hear he’s a kind ruler.”

“Very kind,” Hélène answers with a smile, “I believe he is the fairest ruler Vere’s ever seen.”

“That’s very good to hear.”

The Queen raises an eyebrow at him, “Vere and Akielos have been allies for quite some time, I do hope our relationship isn’t in question?”

Damen shakes his head vigorously, “No, no of course not. It’s just…”

“Just what?” Queen Hélène stops abruptly, brow furrowing suspiciously, “I do hope my husband’s character isn’t being questioned in your court.”

“I’d like to ask him for permission to court Prince Laurent,” Damen blurts out, a little desperately, “I wanted…I just wanted to be sure he’d be amenable.”

“Oh,” Hélène’s expression falters for a moment, a flurry of emotions crossing her face before settling on stoic, “Well. I’m not sure how that conversation will fare, to be perfectly honest.”

Damen frowns, “Prince Laurent has already…I believe he is interested. Unless the King has already planned a marriage…?”

“Oh no,” the Queen says quickly, “No he promised Laurent long ago he wouldn’t marry him off for political gain.”

“You don’t believe he’d find me a good match, then?”

Queen Hélène purses her lips, considering.

“The King is…quite protective over the Prince. I don’t believe he would react well to anyone asking for his hand.”

There’s a sinking feeling in Damen’s chest.

“Is there anything I can do,” he asks, slowly, “to convince him I’d be a good match?”

“Well…” Queen Hélène ponders this, “Do try to catch him in a good mood, dear.”

With that, she pats him on the shoulder, gently, and sends him a tight smile before retreating to her rooms, her guard following behind her.

 

.

 

Damen’s next attempt at gaining Laurent’s favor isn’t meant to be an attempt at all, and maybe that’s why it’s more successful.

He’s walking through the gardens, taking a short but much-needed break from the trade negotiations. They’re brutal to sit through; Damen will never understand how Veretians can use so many flowery words to mean so little. If Damen had his way, the negotiations would be solved in minutes.

It’s an easy solution, one that Damen had discovered minutes after reading the papers. But the Veretian Council seems intent on dragging out the talks as long as possible. They insisted on slowly reading every argument from every side, then discussing each possible solution to the individual argument, even if the solution would only serve to anger another side.

The negotiations have done nothing but bring Damen endless frustration, and his solitary walks in the garden are just about all he has left of his sanity.

He heaves a heavy sigh before collapsing on a stone bench, burying his face in his hands.

“Still searching for that dance partner?” A lilting voice inquires from above.

Damen starts, rising from his seat and craning his neck into the trees.

Up in the branches sits the Prince, legs casually extended in front of him with a book on his lap.

“I’m afraid you won’t find one here,” the Prince continues, “Though the stables are just that way. I hear Akielons sometimes make do with animals.”

“Do you take pleasure in angering those around you?” Damen snaps before he can control himself, “Or do you merely have no concept of social graces?”

The Prince should take offense to that. Instead, the corners of his mouth quirk, and he carefully marks his place in the book before closing it.

“Perhaps you just make it easy,” he says smoothly, “You don’t put up much of a fight.”

“I prefer to fight with weapons, not words,” Damen replies, still annoyed, “Like…”

“Like what?” Laurent asks.

He crouches on his branch, readying himself before fluidly jumping down. When he rises, Damen is hyper-aware of their close proximity. The Veretian Prince is smaller than he is, slender, and Damen obviously has the advantage of size and strength. But still, with those icy blue eyes so close, Damen feels frozen.

“Like a man?” Laurent continues, “Is that what you were going to say? That I’m not a man, as you are?”

“That isn’t what I said at all. You do like to twist the words of others, don’t you?”

Laurent looks amused at that, eyes twinkling as he examines Damen’s face.

“Most people let me,” he says, a little softer.

“Well I won’t.”

Damen’s voice comes out petulant, and he inwardly grimaces at himself. Laurent, though, just smirks anew, studying Damen for a moment longer.

“No,” he acquiesces, finally, “I suppose you won’t.”

He steps back, expression once again settling into cool indifference.

“Your plan,” he says, “Involving the Vaskian fur traders. It’s good.”

Damen’s mind whirls, “My…I haven’t yet presented that to the Council.”

“No. But you wrote of it.”

“To Lord Athiaos.”

Laurent rolls his eyes, “Lord Athiaos is a fool. He won’t see a solution unless he’s the one who proposes it. You should present it.”

With that, he adjusts his book in his hands, making to leave.

It suddenly pains Damen, that he’s to have another encounter with this Prince in which he’s left speechless and dumb, and he’s struck with the overwhelming need to get the last word in.

“The story of Nabis and the beggar is my favorite,” he offers. Laurent falters, hesitating a moment before turning back to Damen.

“What did you just say?”

“Nabis and the beggar,” he gestures at the volume in Laurent’s hands, “Artesian Epics, no? Book seven. That one’s my favorite.”

Laurent’s face adopts an odd expression, as if he’s no longer sure what to make of the Akielon Prince. Finally, he opens his mouth, eyes still boring into Damen’s.

“…mine too.”

 

.

 

They’re on a ride together, taking a brief respite for food and water. Laurent has relaxed just slightly, allowing himself to lean against Damen’s shoulder. Damen, for his part, is remaining resolutely still, for fear of jostling Laurent and scaring him off.

“…your brother…” he begins.

Laurent raises an eyebrow, “The King.”

“The King,” Damen corrects himself, “When I speak to him…how should I go about asking permission?”

“Permission for…?”

Damen flicks a grape at Laurent, “I thought we had passed the games.”

Laurent stretches upwards, smiling, “Perhaps I just want to hear you say it.”

“Very well,” Damen takes one of Laurent’s delicate hands between his own, “How should I go about asking the King for permission to court his beloved baby brother?”

Laurent looks pleased at that.

“Well,” he begins, pondering the question, “It won’t be easy.”

“Naturally. This is Vere, after all.”

“He’s quite protective, you know,” Laurent says, “He’s never taken kindly to people trying to court me. And after the incident with Torveld…”

“The Patrian ambassador? What happened?”

Laurent’s eyes widen slightly, and he sits up straight.

“You mean you haven’t heard?” Laurent asks, “It caused quite the scandal.”

“What did he do?” Damen probes, suddenly feeling a twinge of jealousy, “He didn’t…he wasn’t untoward?”

“Oh no, Torveld merely tried to woo me with gifts of jewelry,” Laurent waves it off, “But Auguste was furious. We don’t come of age until twenty-one, you know, and I was only eighteen at the time.”

“What did he do?”

“Banished him from court,” Laurent says idly, examining his fingernails, “He arranged to have him stripped of his titles, of his household. He’s penniless now, last I heard.”

Damen feels mildly ill, and an entirely new fear begins to take root in his stomach.

“Laurent,” he begins, reluctantly, “Your last name day, that was your…”

“My twentieth. Three months ago. But don’t worry, I’m sure Auguste won’t mind. A wedding takes time to plan, after all.”

“…right.”

Damen considers this, wondering if this whole inevitable embarrassment is even worth it. But then Laurent sighs softly, contentedly, and rests his blonde head on Damen’s shoulder. Damen finds himself smiling down at him, raises his hand to stroke the Prince’s golden hair.

He’s sure he’ll find a way to win over King Auguste. He’s already won over the Prince, after all.

 

.

 

Gaining Laurent’s trust is a slow, painful process.

He’s a bit warmer after the incident in the garden, no longer shooting Damen deriding looks on an hourly basis. He responds to Damen’s questions, allows the man to accompany him around the castle, introduces him to Veretian desserts.

Damen is pleased to find he’s actually underestimated the Veretian Prince. He finds Laurent to be skilled with a bow and a sword as well as an accomplished horseman. He reluctantly begins to speak Akielon around Damen, and Damen is careful to sound respectful when he makes minor corrections to accent and pronunciation.

“He plays games,” the courtiers warn, “He cares for no one but himself and his brother.”

But Damen doesn’t find that to be true.

He sees Laurent when he doesn’t want to be seen, when he hands a young stable boy a gold coin for caring for an injured horse. When he arranges for a slave to be traded from a cruel master to a kind one. When he complements the plain, tearful daughter of a nobleman on her skill with language, telling her that her intelligence will serve her far greater use than her sister’s empty beauty.

And everyone sees him when he storms into the Council room in the midst of their negotiations, immediately silencing every man in the room.

“My brother is set to return at any moment,” he announces, and that nervous feeling in Damen’s gut returns, “and you seem to have accomplished nothing in his absence. Tell me, is it really so difficult to resolve a simple trade dispute?”

“Your highness,” one of Auguste’s men says, looking positively furious at the intrusion, “With all due respect, these are delicate matters—“

“With an easy fix, or so I’m told,” Laurent interrupts, “or was Prince Damianos’s plan not to your liking?”

The man falters, eyes darting over to Damen.

“The Prince isn’t slated to make his argument until tomorrow, your—“

“Nonsense. Since he seems the only one with a worthwhile plan, he should speak now.”

Those icy eyes turn to Damen, who feels for the first time the pressure of a kingdom resting on his shoulders.

Laurent crosses his arms and he gives a slight nod, indicated for Damen to speak.

Damen takes a deep breath, and begins explaining his plan to the Council. They give him their full attention, and he notices the scowls as he maneuvers around any inevitable argument. He almost falters when Guion pokes at a hole in the plan Damen hadn’t predicted, but Laurent speaks up again.

“The question of the routes through Acquitart have been solved as well. Prince Damianos has come up with a solution benefiting both parties involved there, haven’t you Damianos?”

Damen falters, and Laurent rolls his eyes, as if amused by the antics of a child.

“Oh don’t be modest now,” he says, “he’s brokered an agreement. The use of the mountain pass in Acquitart in exchange for a modest percentage of profits. Isn’t that right?”

Damen’s mouth feels dry, “…yes. Yes that’s right.”

“Well then,” Laurent claps his hands together with a sickly smile, “If that’s it, I believe we’re done here. My brother will be so pleased to find you’ve actually come up with a solution. Damianos, may I have a word?”

Damen follows him from the room dumbly, feeling both awestruck and jealous that Laurent has managed to manipulate dozens of men in seconds.

“You’ve been ten steps ahead the whole time,” he says, quietly, “You’ve been able to fix this the whole time. Why didn’t you do so yourself?”

“I want peace,” Laurent says simply, “and the court is far more likely to retain that peace if Akielos’s future king had a hand in securing the most important trade deal of the age. Now, care to join me for a ride? Jord is unwell and it seems nobody else is capable of keeping up.”

 

.

 

Naturally, he tries Jord next.

The older man seems to be Laurent’s constant shadow in the King’s absence, constantly shooting withering glares at anyone who dares move to close to the prince. Damen admires his loyalty.

“You’d like to court Laurent?” Jord asks when approached, face betraying his surprise, “For marriage? Officially?”

“I’d like nothing more.”

“And you’d like my advice on how to win over King Auguste?”

“You’re an honest man,” Damen says, “and I’m afraid everything I know of the King is based in rumors.”

“He’s quite protective of his brother.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“He once had a man publically whipped for commenting on the shape of the Prince’s…figure.”

Damen blinks, “I…hadn’t heard that one.”

“Oh, yes,” Jord says seriously, “and he won’t take kindly to you courting him, that’s for sure.”

“Me?” Damen asks, wondering exactly how many times these Veretians can offend him in a single day.

“You’re just rather…” Jord gestures, “Large? The King is wary of anyone of your stature around his brother. He wouldn’t want to leave him in a position where he couldn’t defend himself.”

“I’m quite sure Laurent has no problem with defending himself.”

Jord’s expression darkens a little, but he merely shrugs.

“Yes, well the King still sees his brother as a child in some ways. He feels the need to protect him. To keep him safe.”

Jord eyes Damen, who shifts uncomfortably.

“I care for him a great deal,” he insists, “I would never hurt him.”

“No,” Jord says after a moment’s consideration, “No you won’t.”

He walks away, leaving Damen wondering if his closing statement was an agreement or a threat.

 

.

 

Laurent is beautiful when sleeping, and it pains Damen to wake him. He’d drifted off in one of the armchairs of the library, a heavy tomb in his lap. His head is tilted to the side, lips slightly parted. Golden hair frames his face, one unruly strand hanging over his pointed nose. Damen smiles, committing the image to memory before he places a gentle hand on Laurent’s shoulder.

The prince startles, eyes going wide for a moment before he recognizes Damen. He yawns, then, stretches his arms in front of him.

“Have I slept through dinner again?” he asks, sounding as if he couldn’t care less.

“No,” Damen smiles, “But you’ve almost slept through…is that Akielon?”

Laurent looks at the book in his hands, closes it abruptly and turns pink.

“I was merely practicing,” he says, but Damen snatches the book from his hands.

“Akielon courtship customs? Interesting choice.”

The flush deepens, “I was merely trying to understand why you’re so inadequate at this. Much of the etiquette is the same, you know.”

“It is,” Damen grins down at him, and Laurent shifts uncomfortably.

“Some of your traditions are utterly barbaric, though. The kidnapping of the bride the night before the wedding? Horrid.”

“And outdated.”

“You give women no say in who to marry.”

“Well then it’s a very good thing neither of us are women, isn’t it?”

They stare at each other for a moment, and an odd sort of tension rises in the room before Damen remembers the reason he’d come to the library.

“A messenger arrived not an hour ago,” he says, “from the King.”

Laurent straightens, “and?”

“He should be here by nightfall, provided—“

But Damen doesn’t finish his comment. Laurent rockets out of his seat, and runs from the room in a hurry.

“—the weather remains fair."

Damen doesn’t see Laurent for the rest of the day. He roams about the castle, bored, internally planning out how he’ll ask Auguste for Laurent’s hand.

“Your highness,” he murmurs to himself, “I would like to…if you permit…no. It would be my greatest honor if you’d grant me your blessing in courting Laurent—Prince Laurent. No. Damn it all.”

He runs a hand through his hair, frustrated. Practices making himself look smaller, to appear less threatening. Wonders if he’ll have to prove himself in some way. In Akielos, suitors will often compete for someone’s hand. Damen is sure he could best any Veretian courtier in sword-fighting, but what if there’s another suitor Laurent hasn’t told him about? And if Auguste is really as worried for Laurent’s well-being as Jord had said, would it be beneficial to appear weaker in a fight, to prove that he isn’t a threat? Or should he appear strong, to prove he can defend the Prince?

He’s drawn from his musings by the sound of trumpeting from outside.

The King.

Damen’s feet carry him through the halls, out to the courtyard where dozens of people wait expectantly for Auguste’s arrival. Out in the front, Damen sees Laurent, standing beside Queen Hélène. He almost makes a move to stand closer, but something in him wants to see how Laurent reacts without knowing he’s being watched.

It pays off.

When Auguste’s retinue crosses into sight, Laurent’s face lights up, seeming to glow from within. He fidgets by Queen Hélène’s side like a young child, remaining still only thanks to her gentle hand on his arm.

Auguste is a vision on his mount, the golden king atop a snow-white mare, clad in shining armor and a glistening crown. As he nears, he leans forward, urging his horse into a gallop. His men struggle to keep up, but Auguste merely leaps off, taking the last twenty yards or so on foot.

The moment Auguste releases the reins; Laurent bursts forward, running down the stairs to greet his brother. Queen Hélène is close to follow, picking up her skirts as she rushes to greet her husband.

The King pulls his brother into his arms first, lifting him off his feet and swinging him in a circle. Damen hears the King’s booming laugh, the softer bell-like tinkle of Laurent’s. He feels a twinge of jealousy at the loving brotherly relationship.

“Has my brother terrorized the whole court yet, Hélène?” Auguste asks when he finally embraces the Queen, “I do apologize for leaving you alone with him for so long.”

“He’s been on his best behavior,” the Queen responds, face radiating with happiness when Auguste kisses her brow.

“A fright, then?” Auguste teases, ruffling his brother’s perfect hair. Laurent takes on an affronted expression, but Damen sees the barely-hidden joy behind his eyes.

They ascend the stairs together, three beautiful blonde figures. Laurent’s attention is focused on his brother. Auguste has one hand on Hélène’s dainty waist, the other protectively resting on his brother’s shoulders.

Damen’s in way over his head.

 

.

 

As it turns out, the warning that scares Damen the most comes from a child. A boy, no older than fourteen, who approaches Damen over breakfast. He plops himself down beside him, looking over with pursed lips and a calculating gaze.

“He won’t like you, you know.”

Damen finishes chewing his food, examines the youth in front of him. He’s beautiful, in a childlike way, his cheeks still plump and rosy. He’s quite sure he’s the son of a visiting noble, based on his clothing. It’s almost nicer than Laurent’s, deep blue silk brocade embroidered with golden roses.

“Who won’t like me, exactly?”

“The King,” the boy says, with an annoyed tilt of his head, “When you tell him you’re in love with Laurent.”

“I’m not in love with Laurent,” he protests, “We barely know each other. It’s only been a few weeks.”

The boy gives him a look.

“You’re not subtle,” he says, “Anyone with eyes can see it.”

Damen sips his wine, clears his throat.

“What do you want?”

The boy’s hand darts out, grabbing a grape from Damen’s plate.

“I don’t want anything,” he says, “not from you. I just thought you should know that you’re not good enough for him.”

“Oh, and I suppose you think you are? Aren’t you a little young to want to court your Prince?”

The boy’s nose wrinkles at that, “That’s revolting. I have no interest in Laurent.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Auguste and Laurent are inseparable,” the boy continues, ignoring all honorifics, “there’s no way Auguste would agree to send Laurent to live in Akielos with a barbarian like you. You’re simply not good enough.”

He shoots Damen another withering glare, stealing the rest of his grapes before sliding off the bench and traipsing out of the room.

Damen stares after him, wondering what the hell just happened.

 

.

 

It’s not until the show in the courtyard that Damen starts to worry about the young boy and his harsh words. He’d heard the King and his brother were close, of course, but seeing them embrace at Auguste’s homecoming had him wondering if the boy was right.

Perhaps Auguste wouldn’t agree to Laurent marrying a Crown Prince. It would mean Laurent following him to Akielos, one day, to leave behind his brother and his home. Perhaps Auguste intended for Laurent to marry a noble of lower birth, an arrangement that would allow Laurent to remain in Arles. Perhaps Damen is doomed for rejection.

It’s Auguste that calls for their meeting, ultimately. Damen’s summoned to the Kings’ chambers the following morning, and Auguste greets him with the friendliness of a beloved cousin.

“Damianos!” he exclaims, pulling the Akielon prince from his bow, “I have much to thank you for. Laurent tells me you singlehandedly solved the trade dispute in mere minutes.”

Damen looks up, to where Laurent is standing by the window, looking smug.

“I…your brother did have a hand in that as well, I must admit. He found a…flaw in my plan, one I hadn’t noticed, and mended it quite nicely.”

Auguste grins, unsurprised, “Yes, he does tend to do that, doesn’t he?”

He turns to glance at his brother with pride in his eyes, and Damen wonders, vaguely, how many of Auguste’s successful negotiations Laurent has played a part in.

“I look forward to a continued partnership with Akielos, brother Damianos,” Auguste says, smiling, “I do hope we can get to know each other a bit better during your visit. How much longer are you staying?”

“About that,” Damen says, steeling himself to ask the question before he loses his nerve, “I had hoped to ask a favor from you.”

Auguste’s brow furrows, “A favor?”

“I wish…” Damen’s throat is dry again, and he coughs lightly, “I wish to ask your permission to court Prince Laurent.”

Auguste stills, face an expressionless slate, “I’m afraid I don’t quite understand. You wish to...”

“To court your brother,” Damen continues, quickly, “I’m aware…I know he is young still, and I don’t mean to steal him away from you any time soon. I know, too, that I’m nowhere near good enough for someone like him, and that I’ll have to work to earn his affection. But I believe I can make him happy, and I know he makes me happy, and I’d like your permission to begin to prove it.”

Over by the window, Laurent has ducked his head, a soft smile playing at his lips. Auguste blinks at him, stunned.

“Laurent,” Auguste says, after a pregnant pause, “I assume you have already agreed to this?”

Laurent says nothing, but gives Auguste the slightest of nods when he looks back.

“Well…” Auguste looks at a loss, still, blinking rapidly at his brother. Damen wrings his hands nervously. Finally, the King reacts, face breaking out into a joyous smile.

“Prince Damianos,” he says, and grasps Damen’s shoulders firmly, “Thank you.”

And then Auguste does something Damen had never accounted for, and pulls him into a tight hug.

Damen flounders for a moment, unsure. Behind them, Laurent lets out the smallest of laughs, and Damen wonders how it’s taken him this long to realize he’s been played.

 

.

 

“You knew,” Damen says accusatorily, at the feast celebrating Auguste’s return, “You knew he’d be accepting.”

“Of course I did,” Laurent sips from his goblet – water – and grins at Damen, “My brother told me long ago he’d accept anyone I chose for myself.”

“But the Queen, Jord—“

Laurent waves a hand dismissively, “Queen Hélène often grows bored in my brother’s absence. She had quite a bit of fun seeing your reaction. Jord, well he took some bribing. Not much, but some.”

His face pinches together a bit, and he takes a breath.

“I do feel I must apologize for Nicaise, though. He insisted on participating, but I feel he may have taken it to far.”

“Nicaise…?” Damen begins to question, until he follows Laurent’s line of sight to the well-dressed youth on the other side of the hall, “Ah. Him.”

“He means well,” Laurent says, “He’s still learning.”

“What about your other suitors?” Damen presses, “Torveld—”

“Was given a very stern talking to when Auguste felt he was becoming too brash. He’s perfectly intact, I assure you. You didn't really believe Auguste had that much power, did you?”

Damen stammered, blinking at Laurent quite stupidly.

“You tormented me for weeks," he finally managed, "I was ready for Auguste to rip me apart with his bare hands.”

Laurent smirks, “Well I couldn’t make this easy on you, could I? That would’ve been no fun.”

Damen leans over, rests his large hand atop Laurent’s smaller one. Across from them, Auguste beams at the sight.

“Laurent,” Damen says seriously, “I don’t believe anything about you could ever be easy.”

At that, Laurent flushes a pretty pink and hides his smile in his goblet.

“Well,” he says, softly, “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see, won't we?"