"It's far too small," Nicaise complained, literally turning up his nose at the rooms on display before him. "I've no idea how you and that giant savage of a slave even fit on such a narrow mattress without toppling off the edges, let alone fuck on it. Or is that the appeal? Perhaps you prefer that he ruts with you on the ground like the animal he is?"
"That's hardly a problem considering he doesn't fuck me at all, on this bed or otherwise," Laurent pointed out. Not that anyone seemed to believe him about that, despite the abundant evidence over the years that Laurent was not interested in such things. But unlike those palace gossips who'd been excitedly twittering about the supposed recent changes to Laurent's bedroom habits, Nicaise would from now on be in a unique position to know for sure what took place in the privacy of Laurent's apartments. Thankfully, it hardly mattered if Nicaise was aware of that particular truth. In fact, Nicaise would probably be doing Laurent a favour if he spread his newly acquired knowledge of Laurent's continued celibacy around. He could go shout it from the turrets, for all Laurent cared. There were far more important things for Laurent to focus on keeping secret.
It was admittedly a dangerous gamble to allow Nicaise into his rooms. It gave him easy and constant access to Laurent's personal life, and by extension increased the likelihood that Nicaise might stumble upon some of the details of Laurent's strategic plans. Laurent was well aware that Nicaise would happily use any and all perceived weaknesses he might discover against Laurent. Uncle would have called it the height of foolishness to open himself up to that kind of risk just because Laurent had felt a momentary twinge of compassion. Though perhaps it was that as much as his concern for Nicaise that had ultimately decided Laurent; wherever possible without entirely sabotaging himself, Laurent made a point of doing the opposite of whatever Uncle would consider to be the soundest strategy.
At least Laurent knew the kind of relatively straightforward selfish ambitions that would be driving Nicaise. They were something he could anticipate and deal with accordingly. The situation would have been far more treacherous to navigate if Nicaise had instead been here as a spy for Laurent's uncle, but thankfully Nicaise simply wasn't yet accomplished enough at deception to pull that off, at least not against someone of Laurent's calibre. He hadn't even been capable of hiding the real desperation that lurked under his badly-feigned casual indifference two days ago when he'd unexpectedly appeared at Laurent's door at three in the morning. His stricken face had given him away, and then on top of that Nicaise had seemed to be in an uncharacteristic disarray. He'd only been half-dressed, not in his usual cultivated trying-to-appear-alluring-despite-his-age manner, but as if he'd had to throw his clothes on in a whirlwind. Even his hair had been bordering on unkempt. To Laurent's eye, he'd looked almost wild. His too-wide eyes hadn't helped that image.
In fact, Nicaise had been in too much of a hurry to even allow Laurent time step out of the way before he'd shoved past him, effectively inviting himself into Laurent's rooms. And despite the repercussions if unfriendly ears overheard him, Laurent had barely pushed the door shut behind them before words had started spilling from Nicaise's mouth.
"The court is wondering why you've accepted an Akielon savage, of all people, into your bed when you were never willing to take on any proper Veretian pet," were the words Nicaise had opened with in a rush, as if that information could possibly have been what was urgent enough to drag them both from bed at this hour.
Despite having been woken from a dead sleep for this, though, Laurent had been willing enough to play along and assume that Nicaise would come around to the point eventually. So Laurent had replied, "I suppose they now take the origin of the slave as evidence that I have some soft spot for Akielos. As if I don't have more reason to hate them than anyone." That would have been at least part of Uncle's intention when he'd insisted that Laurent accept Kastor's 'gift'. The rest of his purpose didn't bear saying in front of Nicaise.
"Luckily for you," Nicaise had said, "I suppose I could be persuaded to do you the favour of becoming your pet to improve your image. Just because I pity you, you understand."
Of course. Nicaise couldn't possibly be making such a kind and selfless offer because he suddenly wanted to stick close to Laurent for some reason.
Or because he was running from something, more to the point.
"If you wanted me to offer for you when my uncle inevitably casts you aside, you needed only say so. Preferably at a more decent hour," Laurent had added pointedly.
"Not when the contract ends," Nicaise had said too quickly, "now." He'd seemed to try to compose himself again, still fairly unsuccessfully. "I mean, the damage to your reputation by that point would be harder to reverse. That's far too much bother for me. Better to do it now, before it's the Council, rather than just the usual idiots and social climbers, getting it into their heads that there might be a reason why you only like to bend over for barbarians."
As if the Council, except possibly Audin, would seriously think better of Laurent's character if he claimed Nicaise of all people as a pet. Nicaise couldn't really have thought that Laurent would buy into that line of 'logic'.
Laurent had just shaken his head, albeit somewhat fondly, at the obviousness of Nicaise's lies.
Then, just a few hours ago, he'd signed the contract nonetheless.
And now, not unexpectedly, Nicaise seemed to be trying to give Laurent countless reasons to regret doing so.
"Well don't expect to try to put me in this useless bed in the slave's place," Nicaise continued scoffing. "I don't care how binding that stupid piece of paper is supposed to be; the deal's off if I have to sleep in such a poor excuse for royal luxury."
Laurent's bed was, in fact, more than serviceable, designed as it was for a prince. But compared to the monstrosity that his uncle slept in, which Laurent unfortunately knew the dimensions of too well, it must indeed have seemed small to Nicaise.
"Don't pretend that you believe I'm interested in sleeping with you in any sense of the word," Laurent said, suppressing a shudder at the thought. He might have been guilty of many sins, but at least Laurent had never yet shown any signs of sharing his uncle's particular tastes in bed partners, for all that taking Nicaise on would convince people otherwise. "I'm sure that was one of your key considerations before you asked me to offer for you."
Nicaise shrugged, not denying it. "Every pet knows there are benefits to having a master who just wants to use them as a shield to pretend everything's as it should be in the bedroom. Usually that would be offset by how disgusting it is to have to pretend to fuck or suck someone too decrepit to actually get it up. At least with you that's not an issue. Everyone will envy rather than pity me, even though they all know you're too stone cold frigid for me to be enjoying myself."
"Hmm. I rather think you will enjoy not having to bend over for anyone," Laurent said. "You'll have the most freedom for the least amount of effort of just about any pet at court. You'll still receive the privileges to which you've become accustomed, and you don't have to so much as share a bedroom. Yours will be the one through that door, by the way."
Nicaise glanced into it and grimaced. "I assume these so-called privileges of yours will include an actual bed in my bedroom. If there's even space for one in there. How am I even supposed to breathe with all those books everywhere?"
"All the better for you to entertain yourself in those late-night hours when you aren't used to being left to your own devices. When you're not out sharpening your claws by playing the more foolish of the courtiers against each other well into the early hours, that is."
Nicaise's laugh then wasn't the one he displayed for the masses, light as the bells he often wore. It was mocking and, more importantly, real.
"I suppose I'd be better off spending all night every night working my way into the good graces of the court, seeing as how I'll have no comfortable bed to return to."
Laurent rolled his eyes. Nicaise was likely just trying to distract himself from the fact that he seemingly had bigger problems than the quality of his new room, Laurent reminded himself.
"Relax. I'll have a something fitting installed for you by evening. Though I suppose you won't be content unless I find you a mattress filled to the brim with pure Vaskian goose down."
"Obviously," huffed Nicaise. "And if it isn't at least twice as wide as I am tall, you'll quickly find that there are many ways in which I can make your own bed uninhabitable in retaliation."
Yes, Laurent had a feeling that he was going to regret giving a spiteful fourteen-year-old access to his apartments before too long.
"Perhaps you shouldn't have signed a five-year contract without ensuring the accommodations were up to your exacting standards," Laurent suggested.
"Oh, I don't expect to have to stay here for five whole years," said Nicaise. "For one thing, you likely won't survive that long."
"Things are hardly as dire as that," Laurent assured him. "Though the way things have been going, there does seem to be a distinct possibility that the Council might be swayed to believe that I'm unfit to take the throne. So perhaps you're right that I might not be allowed to inhabit the Crown Prince's chambers for much longer."
"If you really believe that's the worst that could happen to you, you'll be even easier for him to get out of the way than I thought." Nicaise's expression practically screamed that he knew something pertinent. Laurent had suspected as much. Nicaise had certainly been in a unique position to become apprised of potential threats to Laurent's future. Other than annoying Uncle, which Laurent thought was reward enough in itself, it was one of the few ways that Nicaise's otherwise ridiculous suggestion for Laurent to buy out his contract might potentially benefit Laurent rather than solely inconveniencing him for Nicaise's benefit.
That, and Laurent just liked him and had wanted to do something to erase the fear from his young eyes. Not that Laurent was about to tell Nicaise that.
"Please try to contain your concern for my continued well-being," Laurent said wryly. "It's embarrassing."
"I'm only being realistic. Why do you think I insisted you pay the entire contract price up front instead of as the usual monthly allowance?"
Laurent's lips twitched upwards. "Hmm, clever. Even if things go as badly for me as you seem to expect, that will surely be enough money to at least get you smuggled safely across the border and set up in style in, say, Patras. Somewhere away from the Regent's influence," Laurent added pointedly. "But you'll find that I certainly don't intend to stand idly while someone swings a sword at my neck. So you might want to consider what you'll do if I manage to survive for the whole five years."
Nicaise looked unconcerned. "In that case, I imagine there are worse things than being the pet of a King. Especially one who's unlikely to want me to so much as lick his cock occasionally in recompense."
It went unsaid that the real reason it hardly mattered how long Nicaise had supposedly chained himself to Laurent for was that Laurent would undoubtedly let him out of the contract early once the threats to both of them had been neutralised, if that was what Nicaise wanted. Nicaise likely knew that.
For now, though, they'd best use the contract to remain in relatively close proximity. They each needed each other in their own ways.
"You can repay me instead by washing that ridiculous paint from your face," suggested Laurent.
Nicaise rolled his eyes and sauntered out of Laurent's bedroom unhurriedly, as though he intended to ignore Laurent entirely. But when he reappeared sometime later, flanked by the two guards that Laurent had reassigned to shadow him whenever he stepped outside the sphere of Laurent's personal protection, Nicaise was in fact freshly bathed and unadorned, no traces left of the paint that had demarked him as a pet. Even his usual bells and jewels were gone, likely packed away until such a time as Nicaise decided he should sell them off for much-needed coin. Laurent wondered if Nicaise had shed them in the meantime because they were a reminder of who had gifted them to him. Laurent got the impression that Nicaise wasn't generally averse to shiny and expensive things.
Like this, Nicaise looked almost as young as he had when he'd come to Laurent practically begging like a frightened child those few nights prior. In the moments before he saw Laurent looking and twisted his face into a sneer, there was somehow, against the odds, actually an air of innocence about him. As if he'd been allowed a moment to be just a child and had grasped at it with both hands.
Laurent found, in that moment, that he didn't particularly regret giving up his privacy to have Nicaise here after all.