The sound of clashing metal awoke Laurent from his book. He was sitting cross-legged underneath a large tree tucked away in one of the many palace gardens in Vere. It was his favourite resting spot, providing him with just enough sunlight and shade to be comfortable. Hardly anyone disturbed him here. Or, he supposed, no one could find him here.
The harsh clanging continued in the distance. Laurent immediately began to run through the possible sources of the noise in his mind. An assassination or invasion? No. The fighting was far too loud and brash. It was also midday; only a fool would attempt to take action with the sun in the sky. He was in no immediate danger.
Laurent flipped to the next page of his novel and tried to immerse himself into the plot once more. He got through a paragraph before a series of sharp noises distracted him again. And again. It permeated the atmosphere, destroying the peace that was present just a moment ago. Laurent listened more intensely. Was that laughter?
Laurent set his book down before getting up to investigate. He would be back soon enough, only needing to satisfy his curiosity before returning to his favourite spot. The sounds lead him down the garden trail, pass the rows of exotic flowers, and not surprisingly, to the single outdoor training arena on the green field.
In the distance, Laurent saw two soldiers sparring. He squinted his eyes in attempt to identify these two men. The reflection of sunlight from their swords, however, made it difficult. He wondered why any soldier would choose this place to practice. There was a location at the far end of the palace meant for training. As Laurent got closer, he spotted familiar blond hair and grey Veretian clothing. Realizing exactly who the man was, Laurent crouched behind an artfully trimmed shrub.
It was Auguste.
Laurent peered over the plant for another look. Auguste wielded a long Veretian sword in both hands, circling his opponent. In a sudden burst of energy, Auguste lunged to attack. The other man sidestepped away, swinging his own sword overhead in a wide and elegant arc, bringing it down with impossible speed. Auguste did not shy away; he raised his hands up to intercept the steel before disengaging. He took a few steps back and resumed a defensive position. The two men exchanged words and circled each other once more. They went back and forth like this. Attack, parry, counterattack. There was no clear winner.
Laurent could not help but notice the man’s physique. The stranger was extremely large, his strength built on pure muscle. Laurent had seen many challenge Auguste, with his older brother easily besting them each time. This man, however, seemed to be almost as good as Auguste. To reach his current skill, he must have honed his techniques through countless hours of dedication and regular training.
The man’s brown skin sharply contrasted the white chiton covering his body. A gold pin was clasped on his shoulder. He must be Akielon, Laurent thought. Was he part of the group of ambassadors that were staying in Vere? He must be.
The tension and arguments between the Akielon and Veretian borders was not something of surprise. It had been going on for months, years even. When a string of villages were raided and destroyed in Delfeur – taken by Akielos only six years ago – both nations believed the other was at fault. The Akielon and Veretian Kings refused to take the blame and resolve the issue. War was imminent.
That was until Auguste intervened. He journeyed to Delfeur himself with a small entourage and sought the ones responsible. Once he discovered that clan raiders were the offenders, they were put on trial and executed. Auguste then sent an invitation to Akielos in hopes of finding resolution to their problems. Days later, the invitation was accepted and a group of Akielons were sailing to Arles.
Yesterday had been the first night of celebrations. Truth to be told, Laurent did not remember much from that evening. He was far too overwhelmed by the amount of courtiers, strangers, and drunks around him to take note of every single person that passed him. All Laurent was instructed to do was stand beside Auguste and not talk – something he excelled at doing. He had no interest in meaningless conversations.
A sharp screech of metal refocused Laurent back to the fight and he balked at the sight. Auguste was on the floor, his sword far from his reach. The Akielon had his sword to his brother’s throat, standing above him. He looked like a bear, ready to devour its prey. Laurent stood up, hands clenched into fists, revealing himself to the two men.
Auguste, sensing movement in his peripheral vision, turned his head to Laurent’s direction. Laurent saw Auguste’s lips move – he was talking to the Akielon soldier – but couldn’t read what he was saying. Soon enough, the tall man met Laurent’s steady gaze as well. The Akielon’s eyes matched the colour of his skin, a rich dark colour.
“Good afternoon, Laurent,” said Auguste, amused. He was still on the floor, not phased by the undignified position. “Glad you could join us.”
Laurent stepped forward. He stood at the edge of the training arena, refusing to go inside. “I heard fighting and came to investigate.”
The Akielon man was even larger than Laurent anticipated. For one, he appeared bulkier than Govart, the biggest Veretian soldier Laurent knew. He was also about a foot taller than him. Laurent didn’t think he made it past his shoulders.
“I was showing our guest around the palace and thought it would be a nice idea to spar.” Auguste explained. He pushed himself from the ground.
“It is the weather for it,” Laurent commented. He refused to acknowledge the fact that he did not know who this guest was.
“This is Damianos,” Auguste introduced. “He is the Crown Prince of Akielos and will be staying in the palace.”
Crown Prince of Akielos. “Hello, Prince Damianos,” Laurent said in Akielon and bowed for the appropriate length of time. But when he righted himself, he felt the circlet he always wore slip off his head. With great embarrassment, Laurent was helpless but to watch the crown fall on the ground, a loud pang caused him to wince, and roll to Prince Damianos’ feet. Laurent stood there, frozen with shock. A mild sense of panic settled into his bones.
It was Prince Damianos that moved first. He bent down on one knee and gingerly picked up his circlet. He then used his white chiton to wipe away any dirt and dust before slowly approaching him. All Laurent could think was that he did not make it past his shoulders. In fact, he probably went up to his chest.
He held out the golden circlet, either as an offering or a mocking gesture. Laurent did not know. “Please,” said the Akielon Prince. He spoke the Veretian language well. There was only a slight trace of an accent. “Call me Damen.”
Laurent took the offending item from Prince Damianos – Damen – and made sure to not touch his fingers. He could not find it in himself to look him in the eyes. He stared at the golden pin instead. There was a lion etched on it. “Is addressing each other in such a familiar manner not improper?”
Damen’s voice was warm, as if laughing. Laurent did not see what was so funny. “I intend for our countries to be friends. I think getting rid of formalities quickens the process.” He took a step away from Laurent. Laurent could finally breathe. “I should be heading off to clean up and meet with the members of my party.”
“Of course. Do you remember how to get back to your chamber?” August asked. “I have some business to attend to as well.”
“I do, thank you. I shall see you both in the evening.” Laurent watched as Damen disappeared behind the trees. He walked confidently, his strides long and powerful.
“Perhaps,” Auguste said lightly. “You should start paying more attention to the delegates that come to our court. A Prince of Vere should be observant to all that surrounds him.”
“Perhaps,” said Laurent, with the same airy tone, “A Prince of Vere should not engage in combat with delegates in the middle of a peace treaty. It is very unbecoming.”
Auguste motioned for Laurent to walk with him. They headed off down the garden path. “Damianos would not kill me. He has far too much honour.”
“Father told us to be careful. We mustn’t be too open with foreigners.” He thought for a moment. “Now the Prince of Akielos knows he is able to defeat you in a fight.”
“If we listened to every word that comes out of Father’s mouth, there would be a large wall around our border to keep everyone out.” If anyone else spoke this way about the King, they would surely be charged for treason and executed. Auguste wrapped his arm around Laurent’s shoulder. Laurent, feeling a hint of affection and annoyance, let him. “I love our Father but his pride gets the better of him. He would never approach the Akielons directly, even to prevent war.”
Laurent felt a swell of contentment growing in his chest. It was Auguste who single-handedly achieved peace between two disputing nations. Not their Father. “You will be the best King Vere has ever seen.” The raw honesty of Laurent’s words caught him by surprise.
Auguste gave him an odd look. “Oh? You have such confidence in your older brother?”
“Of course,” Laurent looked up at Auguste. His hair almost glowed under the sunlight. “I would give up my life for you.”
Auguste stopped walking and they stood there, staring at each other. He gave Laurent a soft, private smile and ruffled his hair. “You are intense, little brother. Keep talking this way and you’ll chase all your suitors away.”
Laurent’s blood went cold. “Who said I wanted suitors?” The thought of overtly sexual and demeaning commentary about his body left a sour taste in his mouth. He would much rather be alone.
“They will come no matter how hard you resist.” They walked onwards. Auguste spoke in a tentative manner. “Many people have already shown acute interest in you. Don’t tell me that no one hasn’t caught your eye already.”
The image of a certain foreign Prince flashed before his eyes. Laurent violently pushed the foolish thought away. He spoke with him for less than a minute. “Absolutely not,” Laurent said. “I just turned seventeen. The talk of marriage should be focused on you.”
Auguste shook his head and Laurent narrowed his eyes, feeling wary of the expression on his face. That was how Auguste looked when he knew something Laurent did not. “Come,” his brother said. “We must speak to Father about tonight’s seating arrangements.”
It was another night of needless festivities. Laurent and Auguste sat beside their Father, watching an Akielon performance filled with dancing, flames, and music. It is tradition, Laurent reminded himself. Look interested and be attentive. He felt hot under his tightly laced Veretian clothing. The high collar forced Laurent’s head up, making him appear confident. It helped Laurent project the image of a cool and collected Prince.
Laurent glanced at Auguste, the epitome of regal bearing. He was strong, tall, loyal and kind – all the attributes to make a great King. Even as a Prince, everyone loved him. The Crowned Prince Auguste of Vere, heir to the throne; the nation’s pride and joy. Laurent on the other hand…was small. He was not as outgoing, preferring solitude and quiet. He lacked his brother’s easy charm and charisma. He wasn’t a good swordsman, and could not command an army.
There was clapping all around him and Laurent automatically brought his hands up to applaud. The performance was over and the servants were clearing the space for the next act. Auguste turned his head to look at him. Leaning over, he whispered, “You ought to look more interested. The night has just begun.”
Laurent cupped his hand over his mouth so no one could read the words off his lips. “I find it difficult to sit still.”
Auguste patted his hand, a sympathetic gesture. “I know, Laurent. Why don’t we go riding tomorrow afternoon? I’ll race you.”
Laurent smiled, a genuine one, excited to feel the wind in his face. “I’ll win.”
“We’ll see about that.”
The night continued as both Veretian and Akielon performers took turns displaying the best their respective cultures had to offer. As the entertainment drew to an end, the two Princes were dismissed to mingle with the people. Father retired for bed. Laurent made sure to stick close to Auguste and let him do all the talking.
Auguste was in the middle of discussing the many different types of cloths with a merchant named Charls when someone caught Laurent’s eye. It was Damen, dressed in another white chiton. This time, he had a red cape draped over his shoulder, the golden pin keeping everything in place. He was currently talking to the Lady of Fortaine.
“Isn’t that right, Laurent?”
Laurent cursed himself for being distracted. “Yes, of course.”
“That is just lovely to hear!” Charls smiled brightly. “I would be honoured to provide you cloth for the winter season, Prince Laurent. You are far too kind.” The cloth merchant bowed and left. Laurent couldn’t find it in him to be angry with his brother. He deserved that.
“You’re usually well behaved at social events,” Auguste noted. “Just make sure Father doesn’t notice.”
“I’m well behaved because I don’t speak,” said Laurent, eyes tracking Prince Damen’s movements. He just finished speaking with a courtier and turned towards them. Laurent looked away before they made eye contact. He felt the urge to excuse himself but decided against it. There was no need to run from the Prince of Akielos. “I would like to keep it that way.”
Damen stopped at a respectable distance. “Good evening, Prince Laurent.”
Laurent found it odd that he addressed him first. People usually lavished Auguste with warm welcomes before speaking to Laurent, an afterthought. “No greeting directed to my brother?”
Damen raised an eyebrow. “I’m afraid Prince Auguste is occupied at the moment.”
To his left, Laurent saw Auguste with a group of courtiers. He had somehow detached himself from Laurent unnoticed. Dread and a sense of acute betrayal coursed through Laurent’s body. “I see.”
“I did not mean to disturb you,” Damen began. “But I could not help but notice your hair among the crowd and wished to come speak with you.” And after a pause: “The colour is quite rare in Akielos.”
Laurent touched a lock of the fine golden strands. “So it is my hair of all things that you wish to start a conversation with? Do your best, it won’t reply.”
He was satisfied when Damen, evidently flustered, said, “Of course not. I only meant – ”
A servant came over, carrying a plate of wine. Both princes declined. “I take no offence,” Laurent said coolly. Perhaps all Damen cared about was his looks. He couldn’t help but feel a pang of disappointment. “It is not something new. I have come to understand that my features are avidly discussed by the people in court.”
Laurent expected a snark remark or an agreement to his statement. He thought of the handful of men and woman that tried to woo him the moment he was of age. The excessive touching, superficial and bleak conversations, and preconception image they built of Laurent – a pretty, fragile, simpleminded boy – disgusted him.
“Is that attention welcomed?”
Startled at the question, Laurent told the truth. “I find it too forward for my taste.”
Some kind of emotion flickered in Damen’s eyes. “You of all people deserve more than blatant acknowledgements of your features.”
“And what is it that I deserve?” Laurent asked.
Damen said, “For one, to be treated with the utmost respect.”
At once, Damen’s presence was too much. Laurent did not know what to say. He could not remain composed for much longer. “I apologize, I’m beginning to feel unwell.”
Laurent cut through the crowd of people, mumbling more apologizes. The guard standing in front of the door let him through and he walked out to the balcony. Laurent breathed in fresh air and willed the beating of his heart to slow down. He stood near the balustrade, eyes concentrated on the sky above him. The stars were magnificent and bright.
No more than a few minutes later, the door behind him opened, letting a burst of music and chatter reach the balcony before it became muted once again. Laurent turned around, expecting Auguste or Damen, but it was neither.
The servant bowed. “I was sent by the Prince of Akielos to inquire about your health.”
Laurent closed his eyes for a moment. “Tell him that I wish to rest.”
“Is that all, Your Highness?”
Laurent stared at his feet. “That is all.”