At sixteen, Laurent as a young man had fulfilled enough of the promise of his youth so as to attract significant attention in the court. His looks had grown from the delicate almost girlish features of a boy into the features of a slightly androgynous young man. He was attentive to his appearance in a severe and contained way, tending toward plain clothing in a modest and restrictive Veretian style. Yet his manner was open and engaging, he had a witty reply to the flirtatious comments and invitations directed his way, and he navigated the court with an easy grace.
Ios was hosting a delegation from Patras in a diplomatic visit. Laurent’s Patran was not very good, but that seemed irrelevant to Torveld, the visiting Patran prince, who seemed extremely content to listen to Laurent mispronounce common phrases. Damen spoke first to Laurent’s tutor, lecturing the man that he was disappointed at this oversight in Laurent’s education. He frowned when the man retorted that in lessons, Laurent could speak perfect Patran, and instructed the man that skills in lessons were one thing, but if Laurent could not make sufficient dinner conversation with a visiting diplomatic delegation, that his education was clearly lacking and Damen expected it remedied.
Later in the visit, though, as Torveld’s obvious infatuation with Laurent grew and Laurent made no moves to deter it, Damen spoke to Torveld privately.
“You seem quite taken with my ward,” said Damen, when he had managed to corner Torveld alone.
Torveld raised an eyebrow. “Yes. He is very accomplished, and certainly his looks cannot have escaped your notice.”
“He is too young for such attentions,” said Damen.
Torveld tilted his head back slightly, considering. “He is sixteen, is he not? In Patras, a youth might consider offers at such an age. Is it not so in Akielos?”
It was generally so in Akielos – Damen himself had had suitors at sixteen, though he had not been particularly interested in any of them. But his father had not intervened except to occasionally comment on those who might be approaching the young prince with ulterior motives, and to signal Damen so he could consider them accordingly. Damen did not suspect Torveld of any motive beyond enjoying Laurent’s company, so he struggled with his reply.
“He is young,” said Damen, “and far from his home and his own relations. I consider it my duty to supervise him. You are twice his age, and have far more experience than he. In addition, you are the princes of two separate countries, and such a dalliance, if soured, could have political consequences. I do not wish to see Laurent’s youth disrupted in such a manner.”
Torveld stroked his beard and thought for a moment before replying. “I will respect your concern and curb my attentions,” he said. “Though I will advise you – if you will listen to a man who is almost twice your age as well – that in my conversations with Laurent over the past week I have found him to be wise beyond his years, and capable enough of judging the intents of others that it is unlikely that a dalliance, as you call it, would disturb him.”
Damen nodded. “I appreciate your attention to my concerns.”
“Do consider my advice,” said Torveld, and then he excused himself.
Torveld departed several days later, and Damen watched his ship depart the harbor from the ramparts of the keep. He heard footsteps on the stairs in the tower, and turned his head to the left to see who approached. Laurent emerged from the small wooden door at the top of the tower, and walked along the ramparts toward Damen’s lookout point slowly. It was windy, up on the top of the wall and the cliffs, and the wind teased Laurent’s hair.
Laurent moved close in to Damen’s space, and stood next to him, mimicking Damen’s posture of leaning his upper body on the top of the wall and looking out over the water. “You have scared off my suitor,” said Laurent, after a long moment of comfortable silence.
“You are too young for him,” said Damen, keeping his eyes focused on the ship leaving the harbor, the oars of the trireme moving in unison.
“Perhaps he is too old for me,” said Laurent. Laurent shifted his posture to lean his shoulder against the wall and face Damen instead of facing out at the harbor.
“It is the same,” said Damen, feeling slightly impatient with the word games that Laurent sometimes liked to play.
Laurent gathered up his own hair and tied it messily away from his face to keep the wind from blowing it into his eyes. “I had hoped it was because you were jealous,” he said, and his tone was the same as the light voice he had used for his earlier comments, so it took Damen a moment to even parse what he had said. Damen turned to look at Laurent directly. Laurent was very close to him, and had his head tipped up slightly to look into Damen’s face.
Damen took a step further away from Laurent. He spoke in a firm voice. “Laurent, I am a brother to you.”
Laurent did not follow Damen by stepping closer, but he seemed to lean in, somehow. “We are not actually brothers,” said Laurent.
“We are as brothers,” Damen insisted. He felt it was very important to make this clear. “I feel as a brother to you.”
Laurent’s tone remained light and airy. “I am not sure that is true.”
“I assure you,” said Damen, “my feelings for you are as Kastor’s feelings are to me.”
“You are hoping I will die in a suspicious accident so that you can inherit my kingdom?” said Laurent.
“What?” said Damen. He had the dropping feeling in his stomach that one had when riding a small boat over the top of a wave, the impression of hanging in the air for a long moment before falling and crashing down off of the crest of the water.
Laurent looked at him for a long moment. Damen closed his eyes and was tempted to press his hand against his forehead.
“How old were you, your first time?” said Laurent.
That line of questioning was unlikely to be helpful to Damen’s argument. “Laurent,” said Damen. “If you wish to tumble with a friend your own age, or to take one or several of the slaves to your bed for pleasure, no one in Ios will stop you. But those are different than courting a man or woman older than yourself, a man or woman with their own interests, particularly when the courtship could have political implications. It might not seem so to you now, but two years is not so long a time, and it will be better if you wait for such serious things.”
“And how old are the palace slaves, when they come to your bed for the first night?” said Laurent, and the light tone of his voice was beginning to seem to Damen extremely dangerous.
“This is different,” said Damen, firmly.
Laurent looked down at his feet, where his boots rested on the dirty rock of the rampart, and then back up at up at Damen. “Don’t you want to be my first?”
Damen sucked in a breath, and let it out, slowly. “I can’t ask that of you,” he said, and there was something vaguely pained in his voice. “I cannot extend to you the same favor. Take a lover your own age.”
Laurent tilted his head slightly to the side. A strand of hair had escaped the leather tie and blew across his face as a streak of gold. “And if –" Laurent paused, and Damen felt that the wind on the top of the ramparts had taken away Damen’s entire ability to breathe, that he was lightheaded as a man feels on the top of a mountain. “If I should choose to remain celibate? To wait?” said Laurent. “Would you wait with me?”
Damen clenched his jaw together – it was an astounding request, to give up his lovers, and did Laurent mean for Damen to give up his slaves as well? Was this part of a game to make a point to Damen? Laurent was going to find that Damen was not so quick to give in.
“I do not ask it,” said Laurent. “My decision is my own.”
“Laurent,” said Damen, feeling his voice deepen helplessly. He wanted to reach out to Laurent – it was his impulse to reach out with his body as well as with his words during emotionally charged moments with those whom he loved, but to reach out physically at this moment would be the exactly wrong thing to do.
Laurent took a step back, now, looking out at the sea. Torveld’s ship had become a speck in the distance, the mystery of the horizon making it appear the same size as a bird floating in the air. “We are still going riding later?” said Laurent, but he did not wait for Damen to actually be able to form a reply, and nodded at Damen and turned around to walk back across the ramparts and down the tower from where he came.
Damen leaned his head against the rock of the wall for a moment, feeling as though he might sink down and simply breathe for long moments on the wall to regain his equilibrium. But then he remembered Laurent’s comment, and he turned and ran after Laurent along the top of the wall, catching up to Laurent as Laurent was taking his first steps down the dark tower stairs. “Laurent,” said Damen. “You must explain what you meant by what you said about Kastor.”