After Laurent ran away from Ios, it took Damen seven days to catch up to him, at which point he found Laurent close to the Veretian border and disguised in a truly appalling dress as a prostitute in a brothel.
Damen was only at the brothel because it was the only establishment in the tiny town by the river crossing in Sicyon, and he thought that it might be possible to get a meal and perhaps a bath if he stopped in. Damen had split from the rest of his party earlier in the day, each of them dividing to search separate towns in the region now that they suspected they were close to Laurent. They had hoped they were close to Laurent, at least, because they had found the prince’s horse sold to a trader. Damen spent the afternoon questioning the trader, a farmer, a hermit who lived in a cave near the river, and a woman at the well, searching for a young man who would match the description of the Veretian prince and hoping—against odds, Damen supposed, since he knew Laurent fairly well from living with him for the past two years—that Laurent had not taken dramatic steps to change his appearance, such as changing the color of his hair or dressing in the traditional garb of a desert hermit.
Over the last seven days, Damen had given a great deal of thought to how to find Laurent. It had taken almost a day to realize that Laurent was even missing, sorting through the conflicting stories Laurent had left amongst his tutors and servants and the palace slaves. Damen had departed with Laurent already having the advantage of a substantial head start, since Damen had delayed several additional hours to gather a traveling bag and five of his guards.
They departed, finally, almost two days behind Laurent. Damen tried to place his mind in to the type of twists and mazes that Laurent’s sought naturally, considering the resources that the prince would have had available to him, the types of disguises he might have taken, the paths he might have traveled, the places he might have stayed. Damen and his guards started behind, but had the advantage of numbers and the ability to split up to search, as well as a much greater personal knowledge of the terrain.
Damen gave a great deal of thought, as well, to what he might do with Laurent once he found him. Tying Laurent over the back of Damen’s horse for the return journey and then locking him into his rooms at Ios held a certain appeal.
But even after all of the thought he had given to the disguises Laurent might have assumed, his gaze ran past his foster brother several times before he realized. Damen noted the women in the brothel when he entered – it was late afternoon and the establishment was in it’s early hours of the day, as the women were gathering in the main room and eating and talking amongst themselves. A couple of men sat at bar in the northern end of the room, chatting with the madam. There were six women sitting around the room including the madam. Given the tiny size of the town by the river crossing, that was likely the entire female population of the town. Four of the women were playing cards at a table, and several of them waved at Damen welcomingly as he entered, urging him to join them. A fifth woman sat in the corner, fanning herself in the late afternoon heat.
Damen declined offers of a card game, inquired after the possibility of an early supper, and was himself seated at the bar waiting for food to be served when he turned around again to see the woman with the fan slipping down the back hall toward the private rooms.
He watched the way she moved, as she left the room obscuring her face with her fan, and then Damen was out of his chair and following her down the back hallway just as the madam emerged from the kitchen with his plate.
Laurent was just ducking in to one of the private rooms when Damen caught his arm and wrapped his hand around Laurent’s bicep.
“What are you doing?” said Damen, and he meant all of it – why had he left Ios? Why was he riding through the desert towards Vere? Why was he here, in this brothel, wearing a ridiculous silken dress with his face painted like a slave? Laurent’s eyes seemed even larger with the paint as he looked up at Damen. He had dropped the fan.
“You’re hurting my arm,” Laurent complained, but having spent seven days searching for Laurent Damen was not inclined to let go of him. Laurent tried to twist his arm out of Damen’s grasp ineffectually.
“Why are you here?” said Damen, and then, because he could not stop looking Laurent up and down, he said, “I cannot take you seriously like this. Wash off that paint and take that dress off.”
The house madam, apparently wondering at what had caused Damen to abandon his hot plate of food and head to the back, emerged in the corridor from the main room. She frowned at the way Damen was clutching Laurent’s arm and Laurent’s half-hearted efforts at escape.
“This is an honorable house,” she told Damen. “If she isn’t interested in you, you let her go and find someone who is.”
Damen kept his grip on Laurent’s arm, but turned toward the house madam with a respectful expression. “There’s some misunderstanding,” he said. “This is my brother.”
The house madam looked between the two of them skeptically. They did not resemble each other in the slightest. Damen was tall, broad-shouldered, and with the traditional look of a southern Akielon – olive-skinned with dark hair and dark eyes. Laurent, despite having grown over the past year, was several hand-spans shorter than Damen, of a far slimmer build that convincingly imitated a slender maiden, and possessed of light hair and eyes. Laurent’s coloring was extremely rare in Ios, and still remarkable this close to the border, which was perhaps part of how he had managed to become adopted into a brothel.
Having completed her comparison of the two of them, the house madam pinned Damen again with a hard look. “Right,” she said with an arch tone. “Next you’ll tell me you’re the king, too. Let go of my girl. It’s time for you to leave.”
Damen took a breath in and let it out. “Let’s sit down and discuss this,” he said, attempting to keep his tone friendly and reasonable. Laurent had turned toward the back exit with his back to the madam, and had taken advantage of having his face away from the house madam to disguise a fit of laughter as a cough. Damen contemplated picking Laurent up, throwing him over his shoulder, and running out the back door.
“There’s nothing to discuss,” said the madam. “You don’t seem to understand how to respect a lady, and I won’t tolerate that in my house. Let that poor girl go.”
“Perhaps we could settle this with a fee,” said Damen, having given up on reason as a possibility and wondering if avarice was an option.
Laurent got his fit of laughter under control and turned back toward the madam. He spoke in a falsetto that somehow combined with his faint accent to sound exotic rather than ridiculous. “It is all right, madam,” Laurent said. “He has promised to wed me.”
“You might be young and new here,” said the house madam, “but I didn’t think you were stupid enough to believe it when a man told you that.”
The three of them stood staring at each other for a long moment, the farcical nature of the scene seeming more ridiculous to Damen then even the most fantastic comedies enacted in the theater. He again contemplated running for it. Perhaps Laurent would come with him without protest.
“Is what she says true?” said the house madam.
Damen gritted his teeth and tried to keep his expression controlled. “I have only honorable intentions.”
The house madam seemed to come to some kind of conclusion. “You pay double her fee,” she told Damen, “and you marry before I see you leave this house.”
Damen wanted to protest further. Laurent clearly found the proposal amusing, for he turned his head briefly toward the back door to flash Damen a grin that the house madam could not see, but then he turned back to the house madam and said, “Agreed.” Laurent shook his arm out of Damen’s grasp, finally, and bent to pick up his fan from where he had dropped it on the floor.
The two of them walked like penitent scolded children out of the back hall and into the main room under the strict gaze of the house madam, and then Damen counted out coin from his purse into her hand. After she had tucked it away, she enlisted one of the men at the bar to perform an impromptu country wedding ceremony.
The man seemed about as uncertain about performing the marriage as Damen was at being in it, and the man glanced nervously back at the house madam every few seconds as she supervised the whole proceeding. Damen was directed to take Laurent’s hands, and then to repeat after the man an inelegant and improvised set of vows to protect, care for, and provide for the woman in front of him. Damen replied as he was directed with a stony glare focused on Laurent the whole time, clasping the thin bones of Laurent’s hands in his own perhaps slightly too tightly. Laurent repeated his own vows to respect, tend, and bear children for Damen in his ridiculous falsetto and a mischievous smirk, looking up at Damen with his painted eyes.
Fortunately, either due to the nature of the ceremony in general or the inability of their officiant to remember how it went, the whole proceeding took only a few minutes, and then they were toasting their new lives together with glasses of ale.
The brothel seemed to be gaining enthusiasm for the unexpected marriage of their newest sister, sharing a cask of ale and one of the women beginning a traditional wedding song with eyes focused on the man who had been roped into performing the ceremony. Laurent watched the whole proceeding with wide eyes while he sipped his glass of ale, but Damen took his hand again, set Laurent’s glass down on the bar, and pulled Laurent behind him out the front door amidst catcalling of what they should do as newlyweds.
Damen untied his horse and walked her down toward the river. Laurent walked beside him with his hands holding up his skirt so it did not trail on the ground. Damen untied his packs and found a towel and a bundle of Laurent’s own clothing that had still been attached to the horse they’d retaken from the trader. Damen handed these to Laurent, and pointed him down toward the river.
Laurent walked down the bank to the edge of the river and bent to rinse the towel in the water and wash himself, wiping the paint from this face and becoming the young man that Damen recognized yet again. Damen watched also as Laurent changed his clothes, haunted by a strange feeling that he if he let Laurent out of his sight even for a moment that Laurent would disappear yet again. Laurent came back up the river holding the dress in his hands, he tucked it back into one of the packs. Damen began walking out of the town and toward the rendez vous point he had set with his men, he led the horse and Laurent followed along side him.
“Explain,” said Damen, looking out at the faint path of the road ahead of them. “Why did you leave Ios?”
“I have to go to Vere,” said Laurent, sounding earnest and far more serious in his natural voice.
“Why?” said Damen.
“Auguste is in trouble,” said Laurent, coming out with a complicated-seeming story that involved letters he received from his brother, a message from their family cook in Arles, a rumor he had heard in Ios from a Patran slave trader, and something about the unseasonable weather. “He is vulnerable to this coup and he does not see the danger and there is no one who I could trust to carry a message –"
Damen interrupted Laurent by stopping their progress on the road and holding up his hand. “But why did you not just come to me and tell me of your concerns?”
Laurent stopped also, and turned toward Damen. He opened his mouth and shut it again without saying anything. Said Laurent, “I suppose I am not accustomed to having a confidant.”
“Accustom yourself to it,” said Damen, and he began walking again. Laurent followed a step behind.
“I must go to Vere,” said Laurent, “But I have lost my horse, and –"
“I have recovered your horse,” said Damen, and Laurent rewarded him with a brilliant smile. They approached the camp Damen’s men had pitched, and Laurent’s mare was visible grazing near one of the tents. “Tomorrow we will head west,” said Damen.
“West?” Laurent protested. “No! I told you, I must go north, to Arles!”
Damen turned toward his foster brother and raised an eyebrow. “We will go to Arles together,” he said. “But it will be faster if we take a ship.”