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The Portrait

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Damen’s father had probably dreamed that someday his son would sleep in the chamber for visiting royalty at the giant Veretian fortress at Marlas. But Theomedes had doubtless envisioned it differently than it was actually turning out to be. Theomedes would have pictured a victory march, conquering the castle using traditional techniques of Akielon warfare--siege machines and fighting on the open field. He would have pictured tearing down the Veretian standards and replacing them with Damen’s own banner.

Instead, the castle boasted Damen’s and Laurent’s colors flying side by side, carefully raised at equal heights, to show equal respect to the two kings in residence. There had been no need to take the castle by force. After Laurent’s victory on the field against his uncle, the gates had opened to him readily as the commander of the Veretian forces.

Theomedes would never have imagined that Damen would be sharing the guest apartments -- and the oversized, feather-stuffed elaborate Veretian bed -- with the king of Vere himself.

Laurent had greater patience for entertainments than Damen did, even when Damen was indulging in the fine wine served at the high table and Laurent remained completely sober. So Damen was the first to retire, and signalled one of the servants to show him to where he was sleeping.

The servant led Damen to the royal guest chamber, opened the heavy wooden door for him, and then preceded Damen into the room to quickly light the candles. The fire in the main portion of the apartment was already going, but the servant lit the elaborate candelabra in the bedroom.

Damen dismissed the boy’s offers to help Damen with his clothing. Damen’s clothes continued to take more of a Veretian style than the Akielons under his command preferred, but he refused to let his clothing become so elaborate that he could not put it on and take it off himself.

He looked over the chambers briefly. There were several connected rooms as part of the suite. The entrance was to a small sitting room, which opened through an arch to the bedroom. The bedroom was filled with an ornate four-poster tapestried bed. Off of the bedroom was a small dressing room with a wardrobe doubtless already filled with Laurent's clothing by the industrious servants, a small dressing table, and several carefully polished mirrors.

Marlas was a fortress built primarily for defense, so the windows to the rooms were small and carved through the deep rock of the wall, affording very limited view of the plains below. This left the rooms rather dark, though the servants had attempted to make up for that with what seemed to Damen a surplus of candles.

As Damen emerged from the dressing room into the bedroom, the page had finished lighting the candelabra that sat across from the bed, and a large portrait on the wall across from the bed was lit up. The page ducked out of the rooms, closing the door behind him.

Akielons were not as fond of their own appearance as Veretians, and did not have their portraits painted every few years as wealthy Veretians seemed to do. Damen had met amongst the court at Arles several portrait painters, and it seemed that the courtiers were perpetually debating the best setting or position for their next commission, the clothing that they would wear for the sitting, and the style in which they desired to be painted.

Damen understood from his overheard discussions that it was currently in vogue to be painted as realistically as the painter could manage, to the point where one elderly courtier had complained that the painter gave him more hair than he demonstrated he had on his actual head. But it was also understood that the painter's job was to make the subject attractive.

The painting across from the bed was of two boys, and Damen moved closer to look at it in the candlelight. The canvas was large, perhaps half of Damen's own height. It was hung over a wooden trunk that sat against the wall and between the two sets of candelabra, and presented in an elaborate gold-gilt frame.

The older of the boys in the painting was seated, and the younger standing beside him. The boys were painted against a backdrop of draped red velvet -- not the current style of outdoor landscape settings -- but even the backdrop had been given meticulous attention by what was clearly a talented painter. It seemed as though Damen might be able to reach out and touch the drape of the fabric, to feel the nap of the velvet on his fingers. The clothing of the two boys was similarly detailed, each of them wearing rich velvet and brocade fabrics in varying colors, to show off the expense of the inks used and the skill of the painter with the textures.

Damen forced his own gaze to focus on the boys’ faces.

He had never seen Laurent as a boy, but he knew Laurent's face well enough as a man to recognize the same eyes in the face that the painter had captured. Damen had met Auguste what must have been only a few years after the painting had been set, since the older brother's features were more familiar to what Damen had faced on the field outside of the castle where he was now planning to sleep.

Auguste seemed to be looking out straight at Damen as the viewer, and the effect was kept from being overwhelming by the smirk of mischief that the painter had managed to capture in the older prince's face. Auguste's expression was solemn, but it conveyed the sense that he was about to smile, or to laugh broadly, with the kind of humor that invited the audience to join him.

Laurent's gaze in the painting was not out at the audience, but focused completely on his older brother. If what Paschal had told Damen about Laurent's adoration for his brother was true, then the painter had captured it well. It was easy enough to believe that Laurent looked to Auguste in all things from the way his eyes held nothing else in the painting.

Damen's contemplation of the painting was interrupted by the opening of the door. The entrant was Laurent himself. Laurent took in the rooms with the same sort of inspection Damen had performed upon entering -- assessing the space, the occupant, the arrangement of rooms and the furnishings. Laurent's gaze seemed to settle, after his inspection, on Damen himself. He walked over to where Damen was standing to take in what it was on the wall that had captured Damen's attention.

Laurent looked at the painting. Damen looked at Laurent looking at the painting. The candlelight flickered and reflected golden off of Laurent's hair. Damen wondered if there was a word painters used to describe that effect. Perhaps it was not something that could be easily replicated on canvas.

Damen felt he ought to say something, but words did not come to him.

Having completed his assessment of the painting with the same casual ease he'd taken in the rooms, Laurent shrugged slightly. "It turned out rather well."

Damen opened his mouth, but Laurent was still inspecting the painting.

"Geoffrey's first idea had been to paint me holding a small unicorn," said Laurent. "So I spent half of the sitting trying to keep a white goat from jumping out of my arms; it was farcical."

Laurent turned away from the painting toward Damen; he seemed to take in from Damen's expression that Damen's thoughts were not on the goat and raised a questioning eyebrow.

"I'm sorry," Damen said. His voice was thick with emotion, contrasting with the light tone Laurent had used to reminisce.

Laurent was quiet. Damen could not tear his eyes away from Laurent's face. There was something of the same look the boy Laurent had in the painting in Laurent's expression currently.

"I wish--." Damen was uncertain where to take that thought.

Laurent took a step closer to where Damen was standing. Damen was reminded, when Laurent stood so close, that Laurent was a head shorter than he was and had to tilt his head up to look Damen in the face.

Damen had not been able to form a coherent sentence, but Laurent seemed to take his meaning anyway.

"Yes," said Laurent. His tone was more solemn than his initial remarks. "I am sorry also."

"For what?"

Laurent smiled slightly. His expression was similar to the one Auguste wore in the painting; the subtle edge of humor that invited others to join the joke if only they were clever enough to see it. "You are very forgiving of my faults if you are not keeping a list."

"I'm not keeping a list," said Damen.

Laurent took a step even closer. He was near enough to touch Damen, and he did, leaning in to rest his head on Damen's shoulder. His hair brushed Damen's cheek. Damen closed his arms around Laurent in an reflexive embrace. "Then let me just say that I realize you could have a quite lengthy list, and I appreciate your short memory."

Damen huffed out a breath of air at that. Damen thought about how to frame what he wanted to say. He had not been sure how to broach the subject, but this moment, with Laurent’s brother looking at him from the wall, Laurent warm in his arms, the scent of Laurent in his nose, it seemed that if he were ever able to speak of it this was the right time. “You said,” he began. “You said that when it was all finished, things would fall out between us as they would.”

Laurent tended toward long and complicated pronouncements, especially when he was uncomfortable. Now he said nothing. He made an uncharacteristic interrogative noise, slightly muffled because his face was still resting against Damen’s shoulder.

“What is to be between us now?” said Damen. His arms tightened slightly around Laurent, as though he were anticipating that the reply would separate them and attempting to prevent it. He forced himself to loosen his hold, but he could not bring himself to let Laurent go.

Laurent made no motion to move away. “What do you want to be between us?”

Damen turned his head slightly so that Auguste’s gaze from the painting was not visible. “I don’t know how to have you alongside the things that I was raised to do.”

Laurent tipped his head up to look at Damen’s face. When he spoke, his tone was arch. “So you are saying you wish me to direct you.”

Damen laughed.

Said Laurent, “You surprise me. You’ve surprised me since you were first thrown in front of me at the palace. You disrupted my plans and caused me to rethink everything. So I’m finally not surprised to find you beside me today when none of my plans would have ever accounted for that.”

Laurent shifted slightly to raise one of his hands to touch Damen’s face softly. “I do not know what will be between us next month, or next year, or when all of your hair turns grey.” He ran a hand through Damen’s curls in illustration.

“But I did not think you would be there when I faced my uncle, and you were, and I did not think you would be there at San Pelier, and you were, and I didn’t think you’d be here tonight, and here we are.”

Laurent’s voice was even, but Damen could feel the tension in the slight tremble of Laurent’s body against his own, and he embraced Laurent more tightly in response.

For a long moment, there was only the sound of their breathing and the sound of the fire in the sitting room. A log settled in the fireplace and the fire sprayed sparks, and then resumed its gentle crackling.

“Perhaps we should commission a portrait,” said Laurent, the tone of his voice light again. “To commemorate the occasion of our victory, of course.”

Damen felt the same helpless amusement he often felt around Laurent. “Only if you hold the unicorn.”

Laurent did not laugh, but his lips twitched in the manner Damen recognized as him wanting to.

Damen breathed in and out, deeply, releasing the questions and the weight of their discussion to the night. “I think we need to summon a servant.”

“Why’s that?” said Laurent.

“Because I don’t think across from our bed is the appropriate location for this portrait.” Auguste’s ghost was probably going to be in the room with him and Laurent always, but it was worse if his painting were staring at out at them.

“My boyish looks don’t do it for you?” said Laurent, and his tone was light, but tension had seeped back into his body as he leaned against Damen.

“Or can we cover it with a curtain?” said Damen, wondering if it would be possible to drape a cloth from the candelabras.

Laurent’s eminently practical suggestion was that they ignore trying to cover the painting and instead untie the heavy drapes surrounding the canopied bed. The bed became a small, dark nest for the two of them; it reminded Damen of the small tent they had shared in Vask.

Laurent often favored tender lovemaking, but their coming together that evening was even more languorous and sweet than usual.

“I wish to be beside you always,” said Damen. He spoke Akielon, as he sometimes did when he had fallen apart. He grasped for Laurent’s hand, pressed it against the feather mattress, and twined their fingers together tightly.

“Yes,” Laurent returned, speaking his own language. “I love you also.”