The younger prince of Vere, Laurent, had grown a great deal in the year that Damen had known him. He was almost a hand-span taller, as he hit the age where boys grew rapidly and colt-like in their awkwardness, before they filled in and learned their new shapes. But beyond the height, Laurent had also emerged like a butterfly from the sullen, snappish attitude he’d demonstrated when first arriving in Akielos into a charming and engaging young man.
When first arriving in Akielos the Veretian prince had refused to speak anything but Veretian, sulked to himself in his own rooms, and picked unhappily at his food when Damen insisted he come to meals in the hall.
A year later, Laurent spoke Akielon fluently and with great wit, impressed the tutors Damen had selected for him with his voracious appetite for studies, and caused the cooks to cluck over him with mock dismay due to his voracious appetite at meals. Laurent had impressed Damen enough with his enthusiasm for and skill at swordsmanship that Damen had taken over his training personally. And Laurent was courtly enough to have coaxed Lady Hypermenestra – Damen’s foster-mother, his father’s longstanding mistress – to instruct him in dancing. Even Theomedes, who had not been especially pleased at welcoming the younger Veretian prince into their keep, had been won over.
Yet when the older of the two Veretian princes, Auguste, came to visit, it seemed to Damen as though Laurent had regressed back an entire year to exactly the sullen child he had been at his arrival.
Laurent stood at the top of the steps as Auguste rode in to the courtyard and refused to walk down with Damen to greet his brother. When Auguste came to him, undeterred and climbing up the steps two at a time, Laurent sneered at his brother’s offered embrace and retreated back in to the keep. Damen attempted to apologize for Laurent’s behavior, feeling that it reflected poorly on him as the boy’s host if Laurent demonstrated such poor manners, but Auguste waved away his apologies with a dismissive hand, saying that he knew his brother well and it was no fault of Damen’s.
Laurent’s behavior did not improve at dinner. Laurent spoke only Akielon at the meal, despite Auguste’s obvious discomfort with the language and Damen’s own efforts to speak Veretian to their guest. As Damen had stumbled through Veretian niceties for weeks with Laurent himself when he first arrived, Laurent’s stubbornness seemed particularly lacking in sympathy to Damen.
The second day of Auguste’s visit, Damen informed Laurent that they were going riding together. This ought to have pleased Laurent; he loved riding. Several weeks before, Laurent had greeted Damen’s birthday gift to him of his new mare with genuine excitement and an enthusiastic embrace for Damen before he ran to introduce himself in a slightly more contained fashion to the horse.
Damen and Auguste conversed as they rode, Damen speaking about the olive groves they could see in the distance and the legend associated with the rock shaped like a falcon. Auguste expressed his interest in Akielos and his appreciation for Damen’s fostering of his brother in straightforward and heartfelt terms. Laurent was silent.
Laurent’s mood did not improve later in the morning when his horse lost a shoe. Laurent stood by her head and stroked her soothingly while Damen inspected the hoof. Auguste held the reins of Damen’s horse. “She should see the farrier,” said Damen.
“Is she injured?” said Laurent, the concern for the horse the first emotion besides sullenness that had shown in his voice all day.
“I don’t know,” said Damen. “She does not appear to be injured, but she is not putting weight on that leg, you see?” He gestured toward her stance. Laurent regarded his mare with wide-eyed attention and nodded seriously.
“You can ride with me to spare her,” said Auguste suddenly. “We can put her back on a lead so she does not have to handle the weight.”
Damen nodded, it was a sensible suggestion. But the sound of his brother’s voice seemed to have jolted Laurent back into his terrible mood, and his expression could only be called a pout.
“No,” said Laurent.
“But—" Auguste began a protest on behalf of the horse.
“I will ride with Damianos,” said Laurent. The moment stretched out, Auguste’s expression stricken, Laurent stubbornly refusing to look at his brother. The scene reminded Damen of two dogs fighting over a last bone from a carcass, except that he supposed that cast him as one of the dogs, and he was not fighting. Auguste swallowed finally, and nodded, and handed Damen back the reins to his own horse, taking instead the lead rope for Laurent’s mare.
Laurent kept his back stubbornly to Auguste as Damen remounted his own horse, and then slipped his foot from the stirrup to allow Laurent to mount behind him.
When they reached the stables, Laurent excused himself to find the farrier, and Damen gave instructions to the groom. He found himself left with Auguste. Auguste was staring after where Laurent had walked off into the stables. Damen scratched his own head before gesturing Auguste back in to the keep. “Let’s have a goblet of wine.”
Auguste did not reject his offer of drink, and each of them had drained half of their goblets before they spoke.
“I hope you do not think we have been such a poor influence on your brother,” said Damen. “He is generally much more agreeable.” He turned the goblet in his hand. “It is a hard age,” he offered as an excuse. Damen himself was only five years older than Laurent at nineteen, but they were ages where a few years made a significant difference. Auguste himself was twenty-five. Many brothers were closer, but it did not seem odd to Damen, whose only sibling was a half-brother close to ten years older than himself.
Auguste’s attention seemed fastened on his own goblet as though the wine were tea leaves in which he could read the truth of Laurent’s nature. “He hates me,” said Auguste.
“He is young,” said Damen. “We are all foolish and cruel in those years. Do not let it upset you; it is good of you to visit and see him.”
“He cried when I sent him away,” said Auguste, still staring down at the table. “He begged me not to make him go, and I said he must. He said then that he would never forgive me; he is not one to forget a grudge.”
Damen made a reassuring noise. “Think of all of all the things you must have said yourself at that age – they are pledges of childhood and an impassioned heart. You are his brother; he loves you.”
Auguste looked up from his goblet suddenly, staring at Damen with wide eyes so like his brother’s. His eyes were framed with long lashes that give him the look of a girl’s toy doll. “I tried to do what was best for him,” said Auguste. “I – perhaps I was too late and he hates me for that also.”
Damen began to wonder if perhaps Auguste was unaccustomed to drink and the wine was going to his head.
“You see –,” Auguste hesitated, turning his head around the room as though verifying that they were the only two there, and then he turned back to Damen. “Last year, my uncle – my father’s brother – took Laurent hunting at Chastillon. It is a small keep near Arles.” Auguste’s eyes were focused on something on the wall behind Damen’s head. “When they returned—" he trailed off and was silent for a moment. He met Damen’s eyes again. “When they returned, I found that I did not like the way my uncle looked upon my brother. It was—not paternal. He looked upon Laurent as—as you might one of the slaves here that you wished to take to your bed.” He raised an eyebrow at Damen, as though inviting a response.
Damen drank another swallow from his own goblet. “I understand,” he said. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” said Auguste. “Perhaps nothing. Laurent did not say when I asked, and if nothing had happened I did not want to even say—" he trailed off again with a pleading look at Damen, as though seeking understanding.
“So you sent Laurent away,” said Damen.
“Yes,” said Auguste, “I could do nothing about my uncle, but I could arrange a suitable fostering for Laurent, one appropriate to his station and suitable to strengthen our alliance as well, so that it could not be denied by my uncle. But Laurent did not wish to go, and he blames me for it, and I must grovel for his forgiveness.” Auguste finished his wine in a final swallow.
Auguste did attempt to earn his brother’s goodwill over the next days of his visit, both with explicit apologies – Damen came upon them speaking in the garden one afternoon before turning back the other direction to give them some privacy – as well as with repeated overtures of friendship, opening conversational volleys at meals or inviting his brother to do things with him while he visited. Laurent rebuffed all of them, and while he was generally receptive to Damen’s advice and brotherly restrictions, he responded to Auguste’s well-intended cautions by doing the exact opposite of whatever his brother suggested.
The last day of Auguste’s stay, Damen went to go speak with Laurent. He found Laurent in his own rooms, sitting tucked up in a nook next to the window where he could read and overlook the white cliffs and the water below. Laurent had a book on his lap, but it was evening and the candle sitting next to him had guttered out; he sat in the darkness lit only by the moon.
Damen pulled a stool up closer to Laurent’s spot. Said Damen, “You are being very cruel to your brother.”
Laurent turned his head to regard Damen over his shoulder. “I am only doing as he directed.”
“He has come to see that you are well; he wishes for you to be happy,” said Damen.
Laurent made a noise of disbelief. He turned his head to look back out the window.
“You do not believe his intentions are sincere?” said Damen.
“He thinks I’m such an embarrassment to the family that I had to be sent to Akielos,” said Laurent, gaze firmly fixed out the window. “He doesn’t care if I’m happy.”
Damen sat back on his stool. “Why are you such an embarrassment to him, then?”
Laurent’s skin was fair enough that Damen thought he could see Laurent flush even in the dim light. “I –" said Laurent. He was silent for a long time.
The words of Auguste’s confession earlier replayed themselves through Damen’s mind. He waited for Laurent to speak of going to Chastillon – or perhaps had that not been the start of it? Perhaps that was only when Auguste had first observed. He thought of what words he might say—were there any words that one could say?
“I used to follow Auguste about,” said Laurent. His right hand had raised to pick at the edge of a page in his book. Damen might have normally said something about treating books with respect, but he said nothing. “As a younger brother follows an older. I would follow him to lessons, to court. I had a spot in the stable where I could perch to watch him practice unobserved, and there was a similar spot in his dressing room. I was there, once, and he –" Laurent was blushing more obviously now. “He brought someone back to his room with him.”
None of this seemed a reason for banishment. “A lover?” Damen prompted.
Laurent nodded sharply, still refusing to look at Damen. “And – I saw them together. Auguste, and Philippe. His shield-brother.”
Damen’s brow creased. He waited again.
“And I tried not to make any noise,” said Laurent. “But he must have found out, and then he said that he could not bear for even a hint of impropriety to damage our family name, and he sent me away.”
Damen closed his eyes for a moment, something like relief washing over him. “Is that all?” said Damen.
“Now you too think I am perverse,” Laurent said, his tone turned acid and hurtful. “But I can hardly be sent further away than Akielos unless you ship me to the islands of the ocean where there are only blocks of ice.”
“Oh, Laurent,” said Damen, his voice filled with feeling and warmth. “No. I do not think that. Neither does Auguste.” Laurent turned his head to the side slightly, still curled in around his book, but peeking out as though Damen’s words were a small glimmer of hope.
“But,” said Laurent, and Damen leaned forward on his stool toward Laurent, and waited again. “I liked it,” he confessed softly. “I…it…”
“You found it arousing?” Damen said, attempting to put the emotions that seemed to storm within the younger prince into words, with the thought that doing so might calm them. Laurent nodded miserably.
“Young men find many things arousing,” said Damen. “Things less explicit than seeing someone having sex. And to come upon your brother having sex is not so terrible. I happened upon Kastor once,” Damen volunteered, “except my hiding place was not so discrete as yours, and I was less silent, so when Kastor’s lover spotted me I commented indelicately on the whole thing.” Indelicate was a kind word for what he had actually said, and Kastor’s response had been both lewd and crude as he’d sent Damen packing, but he was trying to use the story as a reassurance to Laurent, not provide him with more fodder for his already inappropriately dirty mouth.
Laurent had his head resting on his knee with his face turned toward Damen. “But he sent me away.”
“He sent you away because of something else,” said Damen. Laurent opened his mouth, Damen held up a hand to forestall him. “Yes, he shared with me what it was, but no, I am not going to share it with you, because you should speak about it with him yourself.”
“He won’t tell me,” said Laurent petulantly.
“I think that he will,” said Damen. “But if he truly does not, then you can come to me after he leaves and I will tell you.”
Laurent pursed his lips, considering. “Will you swear it?”
“I swear,” said Damen, rising from his stool. “Now, go to bed, and talk with your brother in the morning before he leaves.”
Damen was not privy to the exact words of Auguste and Laurent’s conversation in the morning, but he saw the pleased expression on Auguste’s face when Laurent suggested that they walk in the garden together, and the tentative way in which they embraced each other upon Auguste’s departure, Auguste turning his eyes skyward as though in thanks, and Laurent never approached Damen for the answer.