Kempt is a small palace. Hennike is the youngest of three brothers and five sisters, and she’s never been shown a lot of attention. When Prince Aleron of Vere arrives, dark haired and handsome, the first thing he does is kiss her hand and gift her with a heavy sapphire necklace. Becoming a Queen was never something she’d imagined would happen to her, but Aleron is taken with her. She is taken enough to wear the necklace every day until her wedding, regardless of the shade of her dress, and then many days after that.
She still wonders whether he noticed the first time she went without it.
Her life is wonderful, at first. The court at Vere is a little excessive, but she likes parties and she can look past the pets and focus on the architecture and the literature. When Auguste is born, he is the happiest, most beautiful baby in the world.
On Auguste’s seventh birthday, she spends the morning out in the gardens with him. He is not, as she’d privately hoped, the clingy sort of child. He’s happy to swing his wooden sword and play by himself and with the other children.
Hennike is sitting on a blanket, reading aloud a fairy story, while Auguste plays, when Regnier approaches. She doesn’t know much about her husband’s younger brother. Regnier has always been perfectly polite to her, but she can’t kick the feeling that he’s never liked her much at all. It’s rare that he approaches her like this.
He’s walking with a child, a boy no older than thirteen who is holding his hand with all the clinginess that Auguste has never displayed. His ward, then. Aleron had mentioned, once, that Regnier had never developed an interest in marriage or even in employing a pet as a lover. He is bound by intellectual pursuits, Aleron said, and charitable ones. He adopts young, disadvantaged children as his wards and raises them until they’re old enough to step out on their own.
“Queen Hennike,” Regnier says. “Prince Auguste. Many happy returns.”
Auguste smiles up at him. “Thank you, Uncle.”
“Perhaps,” Regnier says, “Now that you are so old, I can take you hunting in the future.”
Auguste is delighted by the idea.
Later, when Hennike is retiring to bed, she mentions the offer to Aleron.
Aleron frowns. “Regnier said this?” he asks.
She nods, brushing out her long blonde hair that Auguste inherited.
One week later, Aleron gifts his brother with the property at Chastillon. “The hunt is much better there,” the King says, “since I have heard you are so fond of the activity.”
“Can I visit?” Auguste says, sweetly.
Regnier looks down at him, his ward clutching at his pants. “No,” Regnier says, tightly. “I don’t suppose you will.”
Despite the generous gift, the tension between the brothers is palpable. Aleron nods once, and that is the last that the royal family sees of Regnier for quite some time.
It took Auguste six hours to be born, a feat many had been impressed with. Laurent takes eighteen in total, and Hennike spends those hours fearing for her and her newest child’s lives. When the boy is placed in her arms - so tiny, Hennike had forgotten how tiny babies were - she feels as if they have been through a great calamity together and bonded for it.
Older now, and more willing to make queenly demands, Hennike sends away the nursemaids and spends the next few months feeding her newborn at her own breast. Aleron is displeased, especially on the nights when she has a chaise brought into Laurent’s room so that she can sleep beside his crib, but he focuses his energy on raising Auguste to be the future King.
Laurent, the second son and the sweetest, fussiest baby she has known, has the privilege of being her child first and a royal second. Auguste is equally enamored with his little brother. He loves to carry him around, introducing him to courtiers proudly.
Perhaps her life isn’t as divinely happy as she’d imagined, but Auguste and Laurent make it worth every moment. They are her truest loves.
“There’s trouble on the border,” Aleron says, at a family dinner one evening. “Akielons.”
Auguste, the golden epitome of princehood at just nineteen, nods. “What shall we do about it, father?”
Aleron looks to Hennike, “Auguste and I will travel to the border and get the men prepared and in line.”
Laurent is sitting at the table with a book hidden on his lap. They all pretend not to notice. The boy is advanced for his age. Aleron is pleased in that distant way of his, that Laurent will be an asset to Auguste’s future rule. For years now, Auguste has been the light of Aleron’s life.
At this though, Laurent looks up. “But why?” he says. “Vere and Akielos were one kingdom once. Shouldn’t we offer a negotiation first? Surely there is some arrangement better than war for both kingdoms.”
Aleron frowns, but before he can berate Laurent, Auguste laughs.
“It’s not always that easy,” Auguste says, adoring, “But thank you for your input, Laurent. It’s important to consider these things from many angles.”
The King nods, appeased. “We leave the day after tomorrow. Choose six men from your guard to bring.”
After they leave, Regnier makes his return. “The court needs a man who can take charge in these tough times,” he says, “since Aleron and Auguste are away.”
The border difficulties continue on for the next two years, with Aleron and Auguste making only short, infrequent returns. “The Akielons are preparing for war,” Aleron says, grim faced. “The forts will hold, but they have more men than us. It will be difficult.”
Hennike kisses both his cheeks. “I don’t care what happens,” she says, “only that you return to me, and you bring our son with you.”
Laurent sleeps in Auguste’s room every night that they’re returned. It hurts her heart to see them together, they are like the two halves of one soul. The separation is hard for them both. The next time Auguste leaves, he gives Laurent a gift. It’s a little fairytale book.
“I’m too old for books like this,” Laurent says, “I’m twelve. Men don’t read fairy stories.”
He’s had a sudden preoccupation with his age lately, Hennike notices. He keeps insisting to be a man already. She worries he’s planning to use that to insist he go to war with his brother later.
Auguste just smiles and ruffles Laurent’s hair. “I’ve read it,” he says. “And I’m an adult as well.”
When she turns away from the two, Hennike can see Aleron and Regnier talking. Aleron looks angry at first, but Regnier is speaking calmly and eventually Aleron calms down as well.
There’s a brunette pet at the court, maybe seventeen, that keeps making longing looks at Regnier. Hennike can’t understand the appeal, other than that Regnier is very rich and influential. He was never gifted with the regal handsomeness that Aleron and his sons were.
One evening, when she’s making her way to dinner, she catches Regnier and the pet in an argument.
“You told me you loved me,” the pet says. “You told me you wanted us to be together but that I deserved a better life in Arles.”
“You do,” Regnier says. “You’ve been flourishing here.”
“You said you loved me,” the boy says, “but you won’t even look at me now that you’re here.”
“Be reasonable,” he replies, “you have a contract.”
“You could afford to buy it out,” he insists.
“Oh, Maximilien,” Regnier says, affectionately. Maximilien, Hennike recalls, was the name of his latest ward. “I don’t want to.”
Hennike has to do the rounds at dinner. War encroaches in all their futures, and it is her job to reassure the courtiers that they’ll still get to live in comfort with their sons while all the other young men are sent to their deaths. She has to garner their support.
“The pheasant is absolutely sublime this evening,” one councillor’s wife says.
Hennike smiles and agrees and pretends she isn’t thinking about the argument she’d overheard. She cannot abide by this, a man who takes advantage of his wards and then turns them out when they get older. Aleron must know, she thinks, and that’s why Regnier was sent to Chastillon.
Being sent away is too good for him, but she can hardly arrest the King’s brother. Especially since her marriage has lost its early fervor.
“Is there any news from the border?” Guion’s wife asks, as Hennike’s eyes seek out Laurent.
He’s standing at the far side of the room, his laced brocade a decadent crimson that he chose himself. He’s looking up, nodding very seriously at something-
-something Regnier is saying.
Hennike rises, and makes straight for her son, too fast to look casual. She interrupts their conversation by putting a hand on Laurent’s shoulder, and Laurent, her sweet, clever child - who used to climb into her lap when she read to him - flinches.
Her blood runs cold. “Mother,” Laurent says, looking shocked and guilty. He used to call her Maman. She didn’t notice when he’d stopped.
“Hennike,” Regnier says. “Are you well? You look pale.”
“Laurent,” she says, voice tight, “go to your rooms, my love. I will come see you shortly.”
“I haven’t eaten,” Laurent argues.
“I’ll have the servants bring you something. Go now.” She signals one of the guards to follow him.
Laurent has barely left the room when she rounds on Regnier.
“I will kill you,” she says. “I will have your name struck from the histories. Your head will be spiked on the gates and your body will be thrown to the crows, and you will never be able to touch another little boy again.”
“Hennike,” Regnier says, holding up his hands. “Calm down, please. What is this about?”
“I heard you,” she says. “I heard you fighting with that pet, Maximilien.”
“You would execute me for a discussion with a pet?”
“Laurent flinched when I touched his shoulder.” She feels like she’s choking, fighting back tears.
“Sister,” Regnier says. “I don’t like what you’re implying. My private life has nothing to do with Laurent. He is my nephew. You’re being unseemly.”
“Stay away from him,” she says. “I will kill you myself if you so much as lay eyes on my son again. You leave for Chastillon tomorrow.”
“I am offended,” Regnier says. “But I can understand a mother’s love and fear. I’ll go until this all gets cleared up. You should ask Laurent yourself.”
She makes quick apologies, citing a headache, and leaves for her rooms. Her first task is to dismiss her guards to go wait outside Laurent’s room. She will not leave her son vulnerable to any more trauma. Part of her hopes fervently that Regnier was telling the truth, that his devious tendencies don’t include incest. That hope is the worst part, because it feels like a lie. She can now fully see the change that has overcome Laurent in the past few months.
Hennike is unlacing her evening gown - she wants to look as approachable as possible when she talks to Laurent - when she hears the door open and shut.
She looks up. There is a man, he looks handsome and not yet thirty, standing not ten feet away.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry. He’s threatened my family.”
A man, not her husband, alone with her in her own rooms and the guards sent away. This alone has ruined her reputation already. But Regnier, Hennike realises with her dress still halfway unlaced, will not stop at that alone.
The man advances on her, and she grabs at the items on her dressing table. She throws a brush at him, he knocks it aside. She throws a jewellery box. The trinkets clatter across the floor. The man grabs her by the arms and pushes her against the table. Her things fall loudly. Glass breaks.
“Stop,” she demands, trying to struggle free. “Stop.”
“I can’t,” the man says.
Hennike jerks her arm and splashes perfume in his face. He rears back, eyes burning. She grabs a candelabrum and hits him violently across his head once, twice, three times. He falls to his knees and she continues to hit him until there is so much blood she can barely breathe.
She’s never killed a man before, there are tears on her face. The moment his body is found, Regnier will step in and spin the story. A lover’s quarrel gone wrong, probably. Vere abhors bastards so much that they spurn people for extramarital affairs even when a child isn’t produced. She will be executed for adultery. Laurent’s legitimacy will be in question. Auguste should be safe, she knows. The dead man in her rooms is too young to be plausible as his father.
Too young, she thinks, and then her knees are suddenly on the ground and she is retching uselessly.
By the time she makes it to Laurent’s rooms, she’s washed her face and dressed in riding clothes. She looks at the guards and sends them all away except for one: Jord. He’s a member of Auguste’s guards and one of his most promising soldiers. He’d left Jord behind to keep an eye on Hennike and Laurent. Hennike wants to strangle him for watching her at all. He should have been by Laurent’s side every night to keep that vile uncle away.
But Auguste trusts him, and Jord has never seemed anything but loyal. She needs someone to help her and this is her best option.
Hennike has Laurent pack a bag of things - one change of clothes and only the most expensive jewels he has.
“We’re going on a trip for a little while,” she says.
“To see Auguste?” Laurent asks, sweetly excited. She doesn’t have the heart to deny it.
She has her own bag, with the same things as he does, but also some food, water, and coin.
“You know what to do?” Hennike says to Jord, as she pulls the hood of her cloak over her head. Laurent is saddling her horse.
Jord looks grim. He nods. She’s already had him quietly steal two corpses - a woman and a child - and lay them out in Laurent’s room. “I set the fire,” he says.
“Yes,” she replies. “Knock the door down when the bodies have been burnt beyond recognition. Call the other guards. I went into Laurent’s room and locked you all out.”
“I didn’t realise anything was wrong until I saw the smoke,” Jord recites. “By the time I got the door down, it was too late.”
“Yes,” she says. “I know it will be hard, but you cannot tell anyone the truth. Not Aleron. Not Auguste. Everyone must think we are dead.”
Jord nods. She turns to leave but pauses, turns back. “One more thing,” Hennike says, as Laurent quietly leads their horse out of the stables. “Don’t trust Regnier. Lead Auguste away from his influence. This is important.”
She rides through the night, Laurent asleep at the front of the saddle, leaning into her. The next day they ride through as well. They cannot go to Kempt. Her father is long dead and her brother, the King, cares more for the alliance than he does his youngest sister.
They cannot go to Vask. She’s not a warrior and they’ll want to send Laurent to a men’s camp. Patras is an option, but it’s also the first place anyone who knew her would look. The best route, is to go to Akielos. Even if someone finds out they faked their deaths, no one would expect them in enemy territory.
“We’re not going to see Auguste,” Laurent says, on the third day. They’ve done little but ride and take breaks to eat and sleep. They sleep on the ground, cuddled together under their cloaks.
“No,” Hennike says.
“Are you mad at me?” he asks, in a small voice.
“Why would I be?”
“You caught me talking to uncle,” he speaks softly. “Uncle said if you found us together, you wouldn’t love me anymore.”
She pulls him closer and he clings to her like he used to, before Auguste went off to the border. “No,” she says. “Nothing is your fault. I love you. I’ll always love you no matter what, my little star.”
“He’ll be mad,” Laurent says, muffled by her cloak, “that we didn’t say goodbye.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she promises. “We’ll never see him again.”
He’s old enough to know, she thinks. She tells him about her confrontation with Regnier and the attack in her rooms. She explains why they have to leave, and why they can’t be Queen Hennike and Prince Laurent anymore.
When he cries into her shoulder that night, wishing he could see Auguste just once more, it’s the last time she sees him cry for a long while.
They end up at an inn in Sicyon. The plan, more solid now, is to settle in Aegina. There they’ll be far away from Vere and the border conflicts, near Patras, and near a port. They sit at a table together, eating a meagre meal of bread and meat. It will do them no good to flash coin here, so the basics it is.
“Ah,” a man from the table over says, when he overhears her asking for more wine. “Veretians.”
She learnt Akielon in Vere, and thus speaks it with a Veretian accent. She chooses not to answer the man.
Men don’t typically like being ignored. He approaches her table.
“Leave them, Gregor,” one of his tablemates groans. “Do you have to start something at every inn?”
“I’m just talking,” Gregor says, smiling down at them in an unfriendly manner.
“We don’t want to talk to you,” Laurent says, before Hennike can stop him. “Fuck off.”
“That’s not very polite,” Gregor says. “Only a whoreson would speak like that.” He turns to Hennike. “How much, darling?”
“More than you can afford,” Hennike replies. She’s hoping the innkeeper will step in. There’s a knife in her cloak but she doubts she’ll be able to take on Gregor and his two friends alone.
“You might be pretty,” he says, offended. “But you’re old, bitch.” He throws a coin at her. It’s not enough to even buy a piece of bread with. “You should be begging me for that alone.”
Hennike is a princess turned Queen. She has never been spoken to like this. She doesn’t know what to say, how to diffuse the situation.
“Gregor!” booms a loud voice. “What are you doing?”
Gregor goes pale in the space of a second. He spins around to face an interloper. “Sir!” he says, rather more high pitched than before.
“Answer me,” the man demands. He looks like a man whose seen many battles. Broad and dark, with a long scar across his face. He stands like a commander who only ever receives absolute respect. He looks about forty.
“I was just having a conversation. I haven’t seen them around here before.”
“You were being a fucking shit,” the commander says.
“The boy sassed me,” Gregor says.
“The boy is half your age.”
“And,” Laurent cuts in. Hennike makes a note to teach him tact as soon as possible. “You were being a cunt first.”
“Laurent!” Hennike says, shocked.
The commander looks at Laurent for a long moment, judging. Hennike wonders what the chances are that Laurent will actually run if she tells him to, if she has to try and fight this man off.
“Ha,” the commander says, “ha, ha. Well said.” He turns to Gregor. “If you’re going to act like an animal, we’ll treat you like one. Sleep in the stables with the horse shit, tonight.”
Gregor hastily escapes before more punishments can be made.
He turns to the two boys still at the table. “You should have stopped him.”
“I did try,” one of them says.
“Try harder next time,” he replies. “Take down your tents ten times before you retire.”
“Yes sir,” the boys say, clearly relieved they aren’t also being sent to sleep in shit.
They run off.
The commander turns to Hennike and Laurent. “Don’t worry,” he says, “by the time I’m through with them they’ll be afraid to even look at a woman wrong.”
“Thank you,” Hennike says carefully.
He nods. “You must be in a lot of trouble if you’re willing to travel down this way.”
“Yes,” Hennike agrees. “Would you like to join us for a drink?” She’d like to avoid any more run ins with rude soldiers.
The man sits down. “My name is Makedon,” he says.
Hennike knows the name. He’s Commander of the largest independent army of Akielos. If she killed him here and now, there’d be a chance that the ensuing chaos would stop the war efforts against Vere. Then again, it might just make all his men angrier.
“Henrietta,” she says. “This is my son, Laurent.” She’d already said his name earlier unthinkingly. It’s not too dire a slip. Laurent is a common name, and everyone knows that the Veretian King’s wife and youngest son are dead. Suicide, everyone whispers. The wife had an affair and killed herself and her probable bastard. As she should have.
“Henrietta,” Makedon says. “You should leave here as soon as you can. War is coming.”
“We plan to,” she answers.
Makedon, it turns out, is strict and proud, but also honourable. They spend the evening talking, Laurent asleep against her shoulder, on that bench well into the night. The next night, they’re still there and Makedon returns. By the third night, Hennike has agreed to go back to his fort with him, temporarily. Until she has more solid plans.
Laurent is almost fourteen by the time war is officially declared between Akielos and Vere. The Akielons want Delfeur back. The Veretians aren’t amenable. From what Laurent hears, Auguste leads many successful campaigns. But he cannot be at every skirmish at once; the Akielons make their own successes.
“Boy,” Makedon says. He’s frowning up at Laurent, who is perched in a tree, reading. “You should be training.”
“I’m not going to war,” he says. “I won’t fight for your barbarian country.”
Makedon, despite being an Akielon brute with a scarred face, has somehow charmed Laurent’s mother. They’ve been here for over a year and Laurent has lost all hope of them moving on. He only tolerates the situation because every now and then his mother smiles like she used to in the gardens at Arles.
“You’re scrawny and clumsy,” Makedon says, “we don’t want you to.”
“Then I shouldn’t have to spend my days hitting brutes with sticks.”
“You’re a Veretian brat, and a pretty boy” - he says the last part like it’s a bad thing to be pretty - “and you live in a military province. You need to learn how to defend yourself when someone tries to break your nose.”
Another thing about Makedon is that he’s blunt. No-one would ever talk to him like this in Vere. But despite his harsh words and his clear strength, Makedon has never raised a fist or made Laurent feel threatened. If Laurent were ever to find a grudging respect for an Akielon - it’d be for Makedon.
Laurent sighs and climbs down from his spot in the tree. “Fine,” he says.
King Theomedes and his two sons, Prince Damianos and the bastard Prince Kastor, are personally joining the war effort. They are riding through Akielos and collecting soldiers along the way to Delfeur.
“I think it’s time to move on,” Laurent’s mother says quietly.
The Royal family’s last stop before the border is Makedon’s home for his army. Laurent doesn’t want to see them, he doesn’t want to have anything to do with these barbarians attacking his brother, but he also knows that his mother is at least close to happiness here.
(He overheard Makedon - who is a widower with a married off daughter and a dead son - speak to his mother of marriage.
She had sounded truly regretful to have to tell him no. “Not yet,” she had said. It wasn’t a no. Laurent didn’t want a new father, but he did want his mother to smile more).
“No,” Laurent says. “We are safe enough here. You can feign sick when the Akielon excuse for royalty shows up, if you don’t want to see them.”
There’s a subtle alcove in the main hall of Makedon’s property. Laurent uses it to spy from time to time. He uses it when the royals show up.
They are all sun-dark and showing an embarrassing amount of skin. Theomedes looks strong despite his age. Kastor looks like he’s had too many blows to the face to ever be considered handsome. Damianos looks like the brute that he is. His dimples are in-congruent with Laurent’s former mental image of him. He smiles too much.
Laurent doesn’t know what possesses him, but he sneaks into Damianos’ room one night.
“Who,” the Prince says, shocked, “are you?”
“Makedon is besotted with my mother,” Laurent says. “I live here.”
“Ah,” he smiles (as always). “Laurent, was it?”
“Are you going to try to kill Prince Auguste?”
Damianos shrugs. “Perhaps. If it’ll end the war.”
“You started the war,” Laurent says. “Not him. He shouldn’t have to fight you just because you want more land.”
Damianos sits down. “This might be hard for you,” he says, “because for a time, Vere was your home. But we fight with honour in Akielos. I won’t fight any man who doesn’t choose to pick up his sword against me.”
“You’re a bad prince,” Laurent says, then rushes on at Damianos’ offended look. “You’re prideful and foolhardy and you’ll probably get killed in battle. You should consider a treaty. You should consider that maybe your men staying alive and well is more important than a small patch of dirt. Vere doesn’t want to fight you, you’re forcing their hand. Treat with them.”
Damianos is staring at Laurent, open-mouthed. Then he snaps it shut. “It’s past your bedtime,” he says. “Go kiss your mother goodnight.”
The Crown Prince of Vere is a beacon of gold, even when covered in all the blood and dirt of the battlefield. Damen watches him cut through men like butter, an elegant dance that only he knows. It’s captivating.
“Father,” Damen says. “I can beat him.” He thinks. Probably.
“Go,” his father says, absolute in his faith for Damen’s abilities.
It’s only when Damen cuts his way through to the Prince that he sees how he really is. His hair is shorn, blonde cropped close to his head. He used to have long hair, Damen had heard, until his brother and his mother killed themselves and then he cut it all off in his grief.
He doesn’t look like the beam of hope that the Veretian’s rally behind. He looks like a man, resplendent in armour, but tired and hurt and fighting only because he doesn’t know what else he can do.
Auguste stabs a man through the chest and continues on like it’s nothing. He makes a reckless swing as if he doesn’t entirely value his own life. He stops when he comes face to face with Damen.
“Ah,” Auguste says. “It’s time to end this.” He sounds resigned. An actor in a play who hates the role he’s been given.
Men create space around them, eager to see their Prince’s fight.
Auguste knocks Damen’s sword out of his hand.
“Pick it up,” Auguste says. “Once more.”
They fight. They swing, dodge, parry. Auguste stabs Damen’s shoulder. Damen swipes Auguste’s collar bone. Eventually, he knocks Auguste to his knees. He raises his sword for the killing blow and – freezes. Auguste doesn’t look afraid to die. It’s rumoured that he’s still wearing black to mourn his dead brother and mother, which is looked upon badly in Arles because of the scandal of their deaths.
Damen thinks of Makedon’s boy, the Veretian who spoke lovingly of his former Prince. He thinks of all the death and destruction he’s seen today and how war is nothing like the glory that men sing of. It’s ugly and harsh, and he suddenly doesn’t want to be the kind of King that disregards other’s lives for glory.
“Perhaps,” Damen says, tasting the words as he says them, “there’s an arrangement better than war, that we can make.”
Auguste looks up at Damen with the most emotion he’s shown so far. “You sound,” Auguste laughs in a way that pierces the heart with sorrow, “like my brother.”
A child killed by a scared woman who felt she had no other choice. Damen breathes out, lowers his sword. In that moment, Auguste is just a man who has faced too much hurt already. “Let’s treat,” he says.
A treaty is made. Akielos receives Delpha, and Auguste - who now only has one living relative in an uncle - receives his life. The people of Vere have taken too many blows in the last few years, and Damen hopes for Auguste’s sake that this one doesn’t result in too much unrest.
When everything is signed and witnessed, there is a moment where Damen and Auguste are left alone in the tent.
“I suppose I should thank you,” Auguste says, looking anything but thankful, “for not killing me.”
“You knocked the sword out of my hand first,” Damen replies.
Auguste takes a deep breath. “To be honest, I don’t know what I’m to do now that I’m alone.”
“You still have an uncle, don’t you?” Damen says awkwardly.
Auguste laughs bitterly. “I never knew him well,” he says. “And when I came back to court and Laurent was– there was a pet who told me he’d seen my uncle and my mother arguing shortly before she– and that my uncle had seemed angry afterwards. Then my most trusted friend advised me not to trust my uncle, but that he couldn’t tell me why.”
“That doesn’t mean,” Damen pauses. “Whenever there’s a tragedy, people try to make sense of what happened in whatever way they can.” He thinks of nursemaids telling him that his mother loved him so much that she traded her life for his. He thinks of Kastor saying once that all he was good for was killing, like he’d murdered his mother.
“I thought that,” Auguste says. “But this war. We were safe in our fort. It was my uncle that convinced us to meet you on the field. That we could beat you. He has this way with words that makes you believe anything until…”
“You’re alone,” Damen says. “If you had died today…”
“My uncle would be King.”
“Send him away,” Damen advises. “To better relations somewhere like Vask where the women won’t respect him. Get married and have heirs while you can.”
“So that I have more people to lose?” Auguste frowns. “I should have just let uncle come here in my place. He’ll probably be king soon enough.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Damen says, feeling helpless.
“Who else is there to tell?” Auguste says. “I can trust no-one in my court. At least I know you’re my enemy. I’m not good with deception, I can’t predict it.”
“We’re allies now.” Damen is thoughtful for a long moment. “You need someone cunning to help you. Someone who won’t benefit from your downfall.”
“There is no Veretian alive that my uncle can’t plausibly get to.”
Damen doesn’t know why he feels compelled to help Auguste, when he was ready to kill him just hours ago. Maybe it’s just because he’s sympathetic to his issues, or that he’d rather face the man as king than his allegedly treacherous uncle.
“Stay alive,” Damen says. “Give me a month, and I’m going to send you someone that can help you. “
It’s not long before they’re back at Makedon’s fort, and Damen is sending his father and brother home ahead of him. “I’ll stay to celebrate with Makedon and his men,” Damen tells them. “They’re a little unhappy that the war ended without the anticipated amount of bloodshed, but it’s nothing a bit of griva can’t fix.”
Theomedes, who has had enough griva in his earlier days to last him a lifetime, just claps Damen on the shoulder and agrees. “You’re starting to think like a King,” he says. “Keep it that way.”
There’s a lot of revelry, but Damen finds a moment to send off a quick letter.
Makedon’s boy approaches him again a couple of night’s later.
“I heard,” he says, “that you could have killed the Veretian Prince but you chose to treat instead.”
Damen smiles at the boy. He’s laced up tightly, but his long golden hair spills over his shoulders in waves. “It was good advice,” Damen says. “Keep it up and I might let you be one of my advisors when I’m King.”
The boy looks pleased by this. “What was Prince Auguste like?”
“He’ll make a fine King,” Damen says. He looks out at the soldiers, celebrating the victory at Delpha, and when he looks back, the boy is gone.
Jokaste arrives to the sound of wolf-whistles.
Damen met her very briefly before he left for the war, but he saw enough to know that she was determined, devious and very, very beautiful.
She curtsies playfully to her admirers and the soldiers laugh. She’s also very charming. She smiles at Damen.
“My Prince,” she says, kissing his face. “I was surprised you wanted me out here, with all of these men, but I have answered your request.”
“Jokaste,” Damen says. “Let’s talk inside.”
He tells her everything about his conversation with Auguste. “I need you to go to Arles,” he finishes with.
Jokaste raises an eyebrow. “To help King Auguste with his situation.”
“You’re the most devious mind I know,” Damen says.
“You barely know me,” Jokaste replies, “if you think I’m going to risk my life for a shaky at best alliance with nothing to show for it.”
“When Prince Regnier has been dealt with,” Damen says, “come back and I’ll make you a queen.”
He takes Jokaste and a selection of men and women, under the guise of a diplomatic trip, as far as Delpha, where they cross the new border on their own. Delpha, which was last under Akielon rule a hundred years ago, is facing its own difficulties.
“The people are displeased,” Nikandros, who has been left behind to become the Kyros of Delpha once he’s tamed it, says. “They’re worried about food and taxes and the family they’ve left behind in Vere. I can barely speak enough of the language to console them.”
It isn’t often that Nik talks like this. Damen is always secretly touched when his friend feels comfortable enough to discuss his problems as if they are equals. “Do you want me to stay for a few weeks?” Damen offers. “I can teach you some.”
“Can you teach me the magic words that will make everyone acknowledge that they are Akielons again?”
Damen speaks in Veretian.
Nik laughs and gently nudges their shoulders together. “Even I know how to say ‘fuck off’ in Veretian, thank you Damen.”
Before he leaves, Damen tells Nik about the plan with Jokaste. It will be good to have someone trustworthy near the border who knows, just in case. Nik frowns but doesn’t dispute the plans.
“I just hope,” Nik says, “that you’re as aware of traitors in your own court as you are in King Auguste’s.”
Laurent’s sword hits the dirt with a thud.
“Ha!” Makedon says, victorious. “I’ve still got it.”
Laurent picks up his weapon. “Maybe once every three attempts, you do,” he says, drily.
Makedon laughs, while Laurent dusts himself off and they return back to the house together. Laurent has been officially resigned to his life here ever since they’d found out his father had died (a soldier in the war, Hennike had told Makedon), and Makedon had convinced his mother to marry him. It’s not so bad, really, if it weren’t for the sharp pain Laurent gets every time he thinks of Auguste.
“Laurent,” Makedon says, when they’re inside. “Joyeux Anniversaire,” he says, awkwardly.
It’s oddly touching, for a man who hated everything Veretian with a passion a few years ago to learn this phrase just for Laurent. Laurent blinks away his surprise. “Thank you,” he says, quietly.
“Eighteen now,” Makedon continues on, blustering past the almost fatherly moment. “I suppose you’re going to reject my present for you again this year.”
“Yes,” Laurent says. “No slave girls, please.”
“Slave boys?” Makedon offers, as he has every year since Laurent turned fifteen.
“No,” Laurent says, “Thank you.”
“How about another gift?” he offers. “Come with me to Ios for the wedding.”
Prince Kastor is marrying a Patran princess next month. Rumour has it, the Princess was intended for Damianos, but he had claimed that he planned to marry someone else. The country was abuzz with who Damianos’ mystery woman could be.
“Is mother going?” Laurent asks, already knowing she isn’t.
“Someone needs to keep the soldiers in line while I’m gone,” Makedon jokes. They both know that Laurent’s mother has a distaste for courts and royalty. Makedon thinks it’s because her last lover - the mystery man who sired Laurent the bastard - was a member of court. He’s not entirely wrong.
“Alright,” Laurent says. Unlike his mother, sometimes he misses what court was like, all the parties and decadence and silly people who don’t think about the evils in the world. “I’ll go.”
Makedon is a big enough deal to warrant a greeting from the King upon arrival. Theomedes slings an arm around Makedon’s shoulder like the young soldiers they surely once were together, and pulls him away.
Laurent watches them retreat and the casts his eyes over to Damianos, who seems to be frozen and staring at him.
“You have,” he says. “Grown.”
“Yes,” Laurent replies. “That tends to happen with time.”
Laurent is not the only one to have changed in the last four years. Damen had been tall and broad before, but now at twenty three, he looks truly formidable. Laurent, who has been hoping for a final growth spurt, barely comes up to Damen’s shoulder. His skin is dark, in an evenly coloured way that makes Laurent think of Akielon soldiers, wrestling in the nude.
He feels, rather absurdly, his cheeks begin to flush.
Damen smiles. His dimple hasn’t changed. “Come,” he says, “Let me show you around.”
The next morning a servant shows up at Laurent’s door with a golden brooch in the shape of a rose and hands it to him.
“What’s this?” Laurent says, surprised.
“It’s a gift from Prince Damianos,” the boy says, head bowed respectfully. “He wishes to invite you on a ride this morning, before the festivities start.”
Laurent opens his mouth and then closes it.
“Will you accept?” The boy asks.
“No,” Laurent replies. “Tell Damianos that if he wishes for my company, he can ask for it himself.”
It takes less than an hour for Damianos to find Laurent after that, reading in the gardens.
“Did I offend you?” he asks.
“No,” Laurent replies dryly, turning a page. “I find the way you send your servants to manage your social interactions very alluring.”
“Ah,” Damianos says. He smiles and takes a seat on the bench. “I wasn’t sure if you’d welcome my attentions. I thought sending a servant would make it easier for you to say no.”
“You don’t intimidate me.”
“I don’t think I could,” he says. “But to be honest, Makedon intimidates me and I’d hate to see what he’d do to anyone who didn’t show you all the respect you deserve.”
“Usually, he just gives me a sword and tells me to take care of it myself.”
“You are talented with a sword, then?” He sounds pleased at the revelation.
“Perhaps we can spar some time.”
“I would like that very much.”
Laurent finally gives up the pretension of reading and closes his book. He gazes at Damianos, who looks more like a sun-bathed figure of old myth than a man, and considers what it would be like to let this flirtation go further. Most of his romantic interactions are soldiers offering to fuck him. They’re usually fueled by the desire to conquer something pretty and Veretian. Damianos, who theoretically could have conquered part of Vere, doesn’t seem to have the same intentions.
“So,” Laurent prompts, “you were going to ask me to ride with you?”
The wedding is big, dramatic and beautiful. Kastor’s bride is decked in purple and silver Patran ceremonial wear, and Kastor can’t seem to take his eyes off her. Laurent, from his place in the audience, seems to be having the same reaction to Damianos, who stands to the side of Kastor and grins at him through the entire ceremony.
Looking at Damen is a mix of exciting and terrifying. He’s beautiful and has all the good-natured charisma that a king should possess. But he also is Akielon, and it scares Laurent that he doesn’t know when he stopped thinking of that as a bad thing. As it is, he appreciates the chiton that displays Damianos’ powerful calves and thighs. His red cape falls over only one side, which also gives Laurent a view of a broad shoulder, the line of pure muscle.
It seems that after first considering Damianos as a prospect for intimacy, Laurent can’t stop thinking about it. He thinks he’d like to feel that wide chest pressed against him, to wrap his hands around Damen’s biceps and claim his pouting lips.
Makedon says something to Laurent then and he startles. “What?” Laurent says.
Makedon just grins at Laurent and shakes his head.
Damianos spends most of the feast that evening caught up in the duties of a Prince at his brother’s wedding, but he often finds moment to search the crowd for Laurent and to smile at him. It feels like they are on the cusp of something. Laurent finds it very hard not to smile back.
It’s a silly idea, to want to woo the Crown Prince of Akielos, when Damen has a mystery fiancee out there somewhere, but Laurent can’t remember ever feeling quite so attracted to anyone before. A quick dalliance, a summer infatuation, feels almost like a good idea. He’ll allow Damen to give Laurent his attention for the next couple of weeks in Ios, and then he’ll go back to Sicyon and they’ll both forget all about it. He has no doubt that he’s just someone exotically pretty who has caught Damen’s eye.
“Laurent,” Damen says, taking the seat next to Laurent. He sounds joyful and a little drunk. It’s late enough in the evening for some people to have retired, but still many are celebrating - it is a royal wedding after all. Kastor, for his part, disappeared with his new wife some hours ago and to much whistling.
“Damianos,” Laurent replies.
Damen grins at him. His curls are falling in front of his face, almost obscuring one eye and Laurent fights the urge to brush it back. “You have been a beacon to me all night,” he says. “I have never regretted my duties so much as I do that they’ve taken me from you.”
Laurent doesn’t know what to say to that. Damen has the manner of a man sober enough to walk but drunk enough to spill all his secrets. “Is that so?”
“Yes,” Damen says. “I was looking forward to meeting you again,” he continues, “because Makedon has been praising your intelligence and heart for years and I thought perhaps - I remember you advising me, all those years ago, before Marlas, and I thought to make you an advisor of thoughts. Now I have seen you, and you have grown and I am having a very hard time thinking straight.”
“You are drunk,” Laurent says, trying not to look too amused.
“I am,” Damen agrees. “We keep catching eyes across the room and my thoughts are filled with only you. I want to touch your hair. I want to rest my head upon your shoulder until our lungs have matched breath for breath.”
Laurent has never been so aware of the weakness he has for sweetly spoken words. He closes his eyes. “You only really met me yesterday,” Laurent tells him. “I could disappear after tonight and you would hardly think of me again.”
“I don’t believe that,” Damen says. “Will you break fast with me tomorrow?”
“Will you be awake and well enough to eat?”
“My desire to see you will sustain me through any trial.”
Laurent opens his eyes. Damen is grinning at him. He laughs. “Okay,” Laurent says. “I will see you in the morning then.”
Damen comes for breakfast the next morning, looking endearingly worse for wear, and then he continues coming for breakfast for the next week. They spend a lot of time together, probably more than Damen should allow considering his duties, and Laurent finds himself growing attached to the feeling of basking in Damen’s attention.
They go riding some days, or they spar - and the way Damen’s eyes had darkened when he’d realised just how good Laurent was will be seared into his mind forever - or they sit in the gardens and discuss Laurent’s latest book or gossip at court, or the weather and whatever else crosses their minds.
One day, Damen picks a bright, round fruit from a tree and hands it to him. “Have you had one before?” Damen asks, sounding affectionately amused by Laurent’s expression.
“No,” he says. “What is it?”
“How do I eat it?”
Damen smiles, and gets a knife and shows Laurent how to cut into the fruit, spilling out hundreds of glistening red seeds. They sit in the grass together, protected by the shade of the trees and eat the fruit together. It’s such a simple thing to do that Laurent feels warm with the easy companionship they’ve built.
Laurent finishes eating and he looks up to Damen’s red stained mouth, and then to his own hands, dripping with juice. “You’ve made a mess of me,” Laurent says.
Damen grins, and Laurent is struck with a helpless urge. He leans forward and kisses the stains away from Damen’s mouth. Damen, for his part, makes a surprised sound and then meets his kiss with the same delicacy that Laurent has given him.
They spend the afternoon trading kisses after that, and Damen is just as sweet and consuming in the task as Laurent has fantasised he might be. At one point, Damen takes Laurents hands and kisses away the remaining juice at his fingertips and after that Laurent finds himself in Damen’s lap, opening his mouth and wishing that the gentle afternoon never ends.
It is three days before his departure back to Sicyon that Laurent allows Damen to take him apart slowly in his bed. It’s both gentle and hot, and miles better than anything Laurent had allowed himself to think it might be. Damen holds his hands when he fucks him and looks into his eyes and whispers sweet things across his collarbones. Laurent adores the way Damen seems to lose himself at the end - succumbing to his own overwhelming passion.
“Makedon is returning to Sicyon soon,” Damen says, running his hands idly across Laurent’s skin as the dawn light breaks upon them. “Will you go with him?”
Laurent looks at Damen, and the soft vulnerability on his face. Sometimes, he can barely remember what it was like to be a Prince, and thinks that maybe he imagined it - his identity as the bastard Veretian, Makedon’s adopted son, has subsumed him entirely. But there’s something about Damen - a warmth that envelopes Laurent and makes him feel safe, that reminds him of being a child and climbing trees too tall for him, and trusting Auguste below, always ready to catch him.
He knows the situation with Damen, this affair, is not secure - eventually Damen will wed and have children and not have time to remember his dalliance with an ex-Veretian bastard, but his heart feels safe beyond reason. He wants to stay, he realises.
“But there are so many things I want to do with you,” Laurent says, and Damen takes him back into his arms and kisses him until he can’t even remember his own name.
It is odd to stay at the palace in Ios, with no real role but as Damen’s guest. Laurent is free to do what he wants when he wants, but he has no real duties. Sometimes Damen will discuss his day with Laurent, tell him of the issues the realm is having and listen patiently when Laurent offers potential solutions.
“How do you know all this?” Damen asks.
“I read,” Laurent says, and he pretends that all this knowledge - of roads and taxes and crops - wasn’t originally intended for Auguste.
Damen introduces him to his closest friend, Nikandros, and his most promising soldiers. He has Laurent sit next to him at dinners and brings him gifts of weapons and clothes and then a finely bred horse.
At dinner one day, Kastor looks between Laurent and Damen and says, “Brother, you’re smitten.” Damen just smiles and kisses Laurent’s palm and makes no move to deny it.
Weeks turn to months and Laurent is writing hasty letters to his worried mother, assuring her he’ll come home soon, but he can’t decide when soon will be. The thing is, the thing that Laurent had not prepared himself for, is that he feels quite unwell at the thought of leaving Damen and losing what they have.
One evening, at the climax, Damen loses himself and whispers words of love into Laurent’s neck, and it’s all Laurent can do to cling to him tighter. He doesn’t know if he wants to cry or to murmur such assurances back. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. Everything about Damen is completely unexpected.
“Here,” Damen says, one morning, coming back to their room - his room - with letters. “Your mother is an avid writer.”
Laurent takes the letter from his hands and rips into it. “She’s worried you’ve kidnapped me and locked me in a tower.”
“Ah,” Damen says, climbing back into the bed. “I’ll be sure to send a lock of your hair with my next ransom letter.”
Laurent laughs, eyes skimming over the page. It’s the same as usual - she’s doing fine and Makedon is fine, and she misses and loves him. It’s up to you if you want to stay, she writes, as she does in every letter, but know you can come home at any time, my little star.
Laurent smiles, and looks up, to where Damen is reading his own letter. The seal on it is shockingly familiar.
“What is that?” Laurent asks, just too sharp to be casual.
Damen gives Laurent an amused look. “A letter from King Auguste,” he says. “We are something like friends, now.” Damen remembers Laurent asking about Auguste as a child - he thinks Laurent has a hero worship for his old King and finds it endearing. Technically, Laurent supposes, he’s not entirely wrong.
“What news does he bring?” Laurent asks.
Damen smiles. “If you are using me to get close to the King of Vere,” he says, “I will be heartbroken.”
Laurent kisses him, quickly. “Please, I can use my own charm to get to royalty, thank you.”
“That you can.” Damen chases the kiss for a few moments before he turns back to the letter. “Auguste has written to inform me that - oh!”
“What is it?”
“He’s getting married.”
Damen’s face makes a complicated expression and then he starts laughing. “To my fiancee,” Damen says, when he finally gets a hold of himself. He hands Laurent the letter.
The words, in Auguste’s looping handwriting is the closest Laurent has been to his brother in years. He finds himself greedily reading over the words.
Jokaste asks me to tell you, Auguste has written, that technically your offer to make her a queen has been fulfilled, if not in the way you intended. She wants to assure you that she’ll still make good on your deal.
“What deal?” Laurent asks. He can vaguely remember Jokaste, a beautiful woman who had appeared briefly in Sicyon after Marlas.
“Ah,” Damen says. He seems to hesitate slightly before he continues. “It is a secret. When we made the treaty, Auguste confided in me his concerns about his Uncle. I agreed to marry Jokaste in exchange for her going to Vere and assisting Auguste against any treachery. I didn’t expect it to take so long, but apparently the man is difficult to catch.”
Laurent is silent for so long that Damen starts to look concerned. “Laurent?”
“You offered to marry someone, so that they would help your enemy of decades?”
“Vere is my ally now.”
“He was barely an ally at the time you sent that woman over!”
“Are you mad at me for it?” Damen asks, with the delicacy of someone who is completely out of their depth.
“No!” Laurent says. He doesn’t want to think of it now, but he hadn’t even considered the idea that his uncle would strike out against Auguste. He’s always thought of his Uncle’s desires as distinctly un-Kingly.
“You sound upset.”
“I’m not,” Laurent says. “I just… you’re so kind and good sometimes that it’s hard to comprehend.”
“I did what was right. Anyone would have done it.”
“They really wouldn’t have,” Laurent replies. He looks at Damen, and the way he’s leaning towards him, earnestly concerned by Laurent’s outburst of emotion. “I love you,” Laurent says, helplessly.
“Oh,” Damen says, softly.
“I love you so much I can hardly breathe with it.”
“Are you crying?”
“No,” Laurent says, even though he very clearly is. “Hold me.”
Damen needs no more than that to bundle Laurent against his chest and tightly wrap his arms around him. “Are you okay?” Damen says, after a long moment.
“Yes,” Laurent says. “I’m just feeling a lot of things right now.”
“Okay,” Damen says, and then he’s stroking Laurent’s hair gently. There’s a long pause, and then Damen speaks again. “I love you too.”
“Good,” Damen says. “Good.”
The issue with promising himself to Jokaste all those years ago, Damen knows, is that it gave him an image of what his future would be and he hasn’t strayed much against it. Now that she’s engaged to Auguste, Damen suddenly has options that he hasn’t even considered.
He won’t pretend that his relationship with Laurent hasn’t been an issue. He’s been spending the last weeks trying to decide whether asking Laurent to be his official mistress of sorts would offend him or not. And he loves Laurent more than he would a mistress, he thinks. Laurent is fire and ice, the sweetness of pomegranate seeds followed by a sharp tang. He loves the contradictions that make up his lover and he’s been lost on what to do about it.
Laurent is different after the outburst with the letters. Or he is the same, but the intensity has changed. He tells Damen a lot more about his thoughts and his feelings, confides his worries about his mother’s happiness, and the feeling of otherness he gets sometimes, the way he doesn’t fully identify as Veretian or Akielon.
He sits down with Damen some nights, and they stay up together, poring over pages and plans and issues that people are having and coming up with solutions together. It is on one such night that Damen realises that his relationship with Laurent has evolved from lovers to partners - equals, even.
He goes to Kastor first.
Damen and Kastor have an odd relationship. They are siblings, but half siblings, and so everything that should be Kastor’s by right of age is actually Damen’s by right of legitimacy. He knows this causes tension between them, Nikandros has advised Damen to be wary of it enough times. But there’s also an imbalance that they share - as if they both want something out of each other that they’re not getting. Damen doesn’t know what exactly Kastor wants from him, he wishes he did so he could give it, but all he wants from his brother is exactly that - a brother.
He visits Kastor in his chambers one afternoon, while Kastor’s new wife is off making friends or strolling the gardens or doing whatever it is that Princesses without a lot of duties do to fill their time. Kastor seems happier married, as if all he has ever really wanted is a single person that could be his own and nobody else’s.
“What can I do for you, brother?” Kastor asks. Damen pours wine for them both, after having sent the slaves away. Damen has been sending slaves away a lot lately, even from simple tasks like serving his refreshments. He doesn’t know why, except that Laurent tends to look uncomfortable around them and it is Damen’s greatest wish to see Laurent at ease and happy in the life they’re slowly building around each other.
“Kastor,” Damen says, and because he is trying to be more open, more explicitly honest with himself and others, he says: “I know we haven’t always gotten along well, but you are one of the dearest people in my life and when I find myself in moments of indecision, it’s always you who I long to speak to.”
Kastor is quite neatly stunned into silence.
“I wondered if I could ask your advice on something,” Damen continues.
“Alright,” Kastor says, slowly. “What is it?”
“I am in love with Laurent,” he says. “I cannot bear even the thought of spending a day without him.”
Kastor snorts. “Yes, I think everyone is well aware of that. You wear your heart like you do your lion pin.”
“I want to marry him,” Damen says. “What do you think?”
Kastor is quiet for a long moment. “What of your mystery woman? The one you tossed Aleta aside for?” Aleta who was now Kastor’s wife.
“It didn’t work out,” Damen says, and then he smiles ruefully. “She found someone better.”
Kastor scoffs. “Alright then. What do you want my opinion for?”
“Do you think I’ll be able to convince father?”
“No,” Kastor says, immediately. “I don’t think father will be happy for you to only have bastards for heirs.” Damen can hear the bitterness in his brother’s voice, and he feels a pang of something. Regret perhaps, that he was born the legitimate one, but not quite because he doesn’t think he could give up being King.
Damen takes a breath. “I’ve thought of that,” he says, carefully. “My heir wouldn’t be a bastard if they were…”
“What?” Kastor says.
“If they were your future child,” he rushes, “with Aleta. If you’d consider that?”
Once again, he has shocked Kastor into silence. Kastor is giving him a look as if he has never truly seen Damen before. “You would put my child on the throne?” Kastor says, doubtfully.
Damen sits back. “Of course. It will be your child, our blood.”
“I won’t have you call my son your heir only to change your mind when you get your first bastard.”
“I won’t have any,” Damen says. “I don’t… I can’t even think of anyone but Laurent. I don’t want mistresses or slaves or lovers on the side. I only want him.”
“Tell me what you think of this,” Damen says, “honestly, please.”
“It’s insane,” Kastor says. “It will take a lot to convince father, I’m not entirely positive that that’s even possible. What will you do if he disagrees?”
“I’ll keep Laurent as my lover,” Damen says, “and no-one else. Even if we don’t marry, I won’t leave him.”
Kastor laughs, suddenly. “Do you remember,” he says, “when we were young, and you got it in your head that only the highest flower from my Mother’s garden would be good enough to give her on her birthday?”
“Yes,” Damen says. He had loved Hypermenestra like a mother, when he’d been younger, and she had loved him by virtue of being the son of the two people she loved. Her funeral had been one of the few days that he and Kastor had felt truly close. He remembers his brother’s arm across his shoulder when they took the long walk at dawn.
“You were as stubborn then as you are now,” Kastor says. “I’ll support you when you take this to father.”
“Absolutely not,” Theomedes says. He looks at Kastor. “You can’t possibly agree with your brother’s madness.”
Kastor shrugs. “When Damen was nineteen,” Kastor says, “he secured us both Delpha and what has become our most profitable alliance, in the space of a day. I trust his judgement.”
Theomedes scowls, “He is Veretian.”
“He is Makedon’s son,” Kastor says, “and it’s not like he’ll be spitting out heirs.”
The King looks to Damen. “How did you convince your brother of this?”
“Love,” Damen says. “I love Laurent, and I want him to be a part of our family. Like you loved my mother and Nessa.”
“When I am gone,” Theomedes says, to Kastor, “you’ll be in charge of saving him from his own sentimentality.”
“I’ll try my best,” Kastor agrees.
“Fine,” Theomedes says, then he waves a hand to declare the matter over. “Do what you want. I won’t pretend either of you have listened to me since you were children.”
It’s just joking enough to make Damen smile. “Thank you, father,” he says, sharing a grin with Kastor.
The next step, is the most daunting of all: asking Laurent.
The issue is that Laurent is unpredictable and so it is impossible to make a plan for when to do it. They’ll go riding together to a nice lake and Damen will open his mouth but then Laurent is prodding his horse into a gallop and Damen will be too busy racing his lover back to the palace to ask. And then when the time is right, he gets nervous. He knows Laurent didn’t enter into this arrangement with the intention of marriage. It hadn’t been on the table at all. Perhaps Laurent doesn’t want that, and he is still young, nineteen soon, and maybe he should wait.
Kastor raises an eyebrow at Damen over dinner, when Damen gets caught up staring at Laurent, and flicks an olive at him.
Coward, Kastor mouths at him, and then he laughs when Damen kicks him under the table and their father rolls his eyes.
Pallas is something of a rising star in the army. He’s young and handsome and very skilled. Damen likes sparring with him, because other than Nikandros and Laurent, there aren’t many people that keep him on his toes when it comes to fighting.
“His left side is weak,” Laurent calls, from outside the ring. “Go low, Pallas.”
“Laurent!” Damen says, disarming Pallas before he can act on Laurent’s advice and turning a betrayed look to his lover.
Laurent grins, unrepentant, and the soldiers who were also watching the fight laugh. Damen can’t help but feel a burst of happiness at the way that Laurent has determinedly snuck his way into the good graces of his men.
“My left side isn’t weak,” Damen says, stepping out of the ring to approach Laurent.
“Ah, I must have imagined you falling off your horse yesterday then, trying to best me.”
“It’ll take more than that to hurt me,” Damen says, “and it’s your fault for being so distracting.”
“Good,” Laurent says, and his smile turns more intimate the closer Damen gets to him. They’re nose to nose now. “Let me distract you further. I’m bored, take me to bed.”
Laurent presses a kiss against his mouth, and then turns and runs before Damen can grab him. The men that bore witness to this are laughing and whistling. Damen knows they enjoy this, hints of their Crown Prince’s virility. He also knows that Laurent mostly does things like this for a reason other than just bedplay. Still, Damen is helpless but to follow. He grins at the men.
“Soldiers,” he says, “if you’ll excuse me.” And then he’s off, caught up in the chase for a prize far sweeter than he deserves.
“What do your slaves do,” Laurent asks, “when you’re not using them?”
Damen frowns, pauses in stroking Laurent’s hair. He should get up and light a candle soon; they’ve spent the whole afternoon in bed and it’ll be dark soon. He’s pretty sure they’ve missed dinner, but no one came to get them so it should be fine.
“I don’t know,” Damen says. “Some of them play instruments, I think?”
“Hmm,” Laurent says. “Are they allowed to leave the castle?”
“I suppose,” Damen replies, “if they want to.”
“But what if you call for one and they’re not here?”
“That’s never happened.”
“So they mustn’t leave the castle then,” Laurent reasons. “They must always be waiting for you, just in case you want them.”
“Is that why they make you uncomfortable?”
“Have you stopped using them because they make me uncomfortable?”
“Yes,” Damen replies, honest. Sometimes Laurent plunges him into conversations that he doesn’t know how to navigate, like this one.
Laurent is quiet for a moment. “They make me uncomfortable,” he says, “because they are trained as children that their purpose in life is to be chosen by powerful men and to be fucked by them.”
“It’s not…” Damen begins, but then he stops. He doesn’t know what he wants to say. “It sounds bad when you put it like that.”
“It is bad,” Laurent says. “Even the word - slave - is bad. It tells you that they have no will of their own. They are property before they are people. That isn’t right.”
Damen frowns. “They aren’t - we don’t force them. They are treated with honour.”
“I think,” Laurent says, and the way he speaks - each word clearly enunciated - lets Damen know that Laurent has been leading the conversation to get them here: wherever here is. “That I am more qualified to speak of this then you.”
“What do you mean?”
There’s something very specific in the way Laurent holds himself. Tense, but in the guise of being comfortable, relaxed. “When I was younger,” he says, “someone took advantage of me. He had a way of speaking that made me believe it was okay, at the time. It was brainwashing of a sort. When I see your slaves, I think of them as youths - being convinced that their highest purpose is to let some stranger own them and do what he likes with them.”
Damen is quiet for a long time. “Was it,” he says, “one of Makedon’s soldiers?”
“No,” Laurent says. “No, it was before then. I was not a virgin when you first met me.”
“You were barely fourteen when I first met you.”
“I know,” Laurent says. He’s looking at Damen carefully. “…Are you okay?”
“Yes,” Laurent says. “It was a long time ago, and my mother found out before long. She went to great lengths to get me away from… the situation. And we spoke of it in the years after and she made sure I knew that it wasn’t my fault.”
Damen is suddenly profoundly grateful to Laurent’s mother. He thinks if he met her now he might cry. “Alright,” Damen says.
“You look very tense.”
“I’m thinking,” Damen replies.
“Okay,” Laurent says, awkwardly. He sits up, taking his head away from its resting place in Damen’s lap. “Do you want me to go?”
“No!” Damen says. “No, I just. I’m trying to-” he closes his eyes. “I can’t do much about it now,” he says. “I am not King yet and it will be a long process when I am. But I’ll get it done.”
“Get what done?” Laurent asks, quietly.
Damen looks at him. Laurent looks gentler like this, only sheets to cover him and watching Damen uncertainly. They aren’t touching anymore and Damen can’t have that, so he takes Laurent’s hand. “Outlawing slavery,” he says.
“Oh,” Laurent breathes. “That wasn’t my intention, in this conversation.”
“What was your intention?”
“I just,” Laurent hesitates and then tightens his grip on Damen’s hand. “I wanted you to know about that. You’re not very subtle, I know you’ve been considering a greater level of commitment between us and I wanted to give you a chance to change your mind. If that’s something that would make you change your mind.”
“Laurent,” Damen says, opening his arms and feeling blessed when Laurent immediately folds himself into them. “You are the other half of my soul. The only thing that could stop me from wanting to marry you is if you did not want that yourself.”
“Oh,” Laurent says, into his collarbone. “What about your father?”
“He gave his blessing. So did Kastor. Now we just need to convince Makedon and your mother.”
He can feel Laurent smile. “Makedon will agree,” he says. “My mother will be difficult, but she wants me to be happy. I can convince her.”
And then Laurent looks up at him, smiling and it is impossible not to smile back.
The plan is to go to Sicyon to get Makedon and Henrietta’s blessing, and then Damen will get a ship to take him to Arles for Auguste and Jokaste’s wedding.
Laurent is lost in thought for a couple of days after the plan is made, and then he comes to Damen one night.
“I think,” Laurent says, “that I would like to come to Arles with you.”
“Okay,” Damen says. He hadn’t wanted to pressure Laurent to return to a country full of bad memories, but he is very glad that he won’t be alone there. “Makedon has shown interest in coming as well,” he tells him.
Laurent nods, “Well, someone will have to remind him what tact is.”
Realistically, Damen is a prince and doesn’t actually need his subject’s approval to marry, but Damen respects Makedon, and also when he was a child he once saw Makedon throw a spear to perfectly take down a boar from a great distance and that kind of awe-based fear hasn’t left him.
“Do you want me to come with you,” Kastor offers, wryly, “and hold your hand?”
Damen laughs and knocks shoulders with him. His relationship with Kastor has been repairing itself slowly, into something mutually caring and Damen is hopeful that it will continue for many years to come. He knows he will eventually thrive as a King if he is surrounded by the people he loves.
They take a longer route to Sicyon, so that Damen can show Laurent around and introduce him to some of the Kyros. It’ll be good to win their favour before the announcement of their engagement is made.
Laurent takes to politics like he was born for it - he’s polite and charming, and he treats everyone as if their opinions are important to him. Damen is awed by easy grace.
“What?” Laurent says, when he catches Damen staring at him.
“Nothing,” Damen says, and then amends, “Everytime I see a new side of you, I am overjoyed that there is something else about you to love. I can’t wait for the privilege of learning everything there is of you for the next few decades.”
Laurent goes wide-eyed and red cheeked at that. “I’d thank you not to say things like that where I cannot properly react,” Laurent says. And then he spends the rest of the evening running his hand up and down Damen’s thigh, under the table, as retribution.
Makedon and Henrietta are waiting outside their home when Laurent and Damen arrive, and Damen finally gets his first glimpse at Laurent’s mother.
Makedon greets Damen properly, but Henrietta doesn’t stop to kneel before she’s throwing her arms around Laurent and kissing his face with great affection. Honestly, Damen can’t blame her. He’d do the same if he were separated from Laurent for so long.
“Mother,” Laurent says in Veretian, more affectionate than chastising. “Please let me introduce you to Damen.”
Henrietta pulls back from her son, to turn to Damen. She curtsies primly. “Your highness,” she says, in a distinctly Veretian way. She is tall for a woman and as golden and pale as Laurent. Even though she must be close to fifty, she is still radiantly beautiful and poised. Damen feels a spasm of excitement at the thought of getting to see Laurent age just as gracefully.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Henrietta,” Damen says, and he knows he’s grinning like an idiot but he can’t help it.
She looks a little taken back by his overt friendliness, and then she casts a glance at Laurent, who is watching Damen fondly. “Ah,” she says. “I see.” She doesn’t look pleased.
Laurent suddenly looks concerned. “Mother, let’s leave Makedon and Damianos to talk.”
She nods warily and lets Laurent lead her away.
“So,” Makedon says, clapping Damen on the back. “I think it’s time for a friendly duel.”
Makedon never refers to anything as friendly. Damen can’t help the way his heart rate speeds up as a danger response.
They go three bouts before Makedon lets Damen rest, and then they sit down silently for a long moment.
“I love that boy like he’s my own blood,” Makedon says, finally. “Veretians. Who would have fucking thought?”
Damen can’t help but laugh. “I know,” he says. “I wasn’t prepared for it either. Laurent is… truly exceptional.”
“I have an army,” Makedon says, casually.
“I won’t hurt him,” Damen says. “I want to spend the rest of my life making him smile.”
“Good man.” Makedon looks up to his home, where Laurent and his mother disappeared to. “They’re both very headstrong,” he says, “but I think they’ll have stopped arguing about you by now. Let’s go in and see what the consensus is.”
Henrietta seems to sway between pleased and upset during the entire evening, but she accepts their engagement. At dinner, Makedon calls for a round of griva to celebrate, and when Henrietta, Makedon, and Laurent all manage to knock back their cups without a grimace, Damen is pretty sure his heart stops a little. He’s going to be King one day, and yet he has the oddly distinct feeling that he’s the one who’s marrying above their station.
She catches Damen alone a couple of days later, when Laurent and Makedon have mysteriously vanished for the morning.
“Just because you are royalty,” she says, “doesn’t mean you intimidate me.”
They’re standing outside, by the stables. Damen knows he’ll get his first glimpse of Laurent returning from here, and he likes being outdoors. “I don’t want to intimidate you at all,” Damen replies, honestly.
Henrietta sighs. “Laurent trusts you,” she says, “and I know he has a hard time trusting. It took him years to warm up to Makedon. I used to despair that he’d set himself aside forever, always alone, and now I despair that you’re the one he’s chosen.”
“It displeases you that I am a prince?”
“Yes,” she says. “I’ve seen royal courts before. They are filled with deceit and jealousy and terrible things that I never wanted Laurent to be exposed to again. What will you do when your Kyros refuse to accept him? Or your father changes his mind? Or your alliance with Vere falls apart and your people hate him for who he is?”
Damen sighs. “I know it won’t be easy, but Laurent is worth the possibility of facing these things. I know we’ll face them together and we’ll overcome what we must.” Damen looks out to the distance, ever hopeful he will see a speck on the horizon that heralds Laurent’s return. “If I tell you that I’ll choose Laurent over my Kingdom, you won’t believe me - why should you? But for as long as Laurent wants me, I will be his. Like you said, he trusts me. That’s enough.”
Henrietta looks away. “He is my truest love,” she says. “Take care of him.”
The journey to Arles is uneventful, and Laurent is grateful for that. He doesn’t know what he’s doing exactly, deciding to go back. Part of him is certain that no one will recognise him. The other part of him, the more realistic part, has packed a scarf that Aleta taught him to wrap around his head in the Patran style - which will be enough to cover his hair, at least. His golden hair is long enough to touch the small of his back now, he’s been growing it ever since he heard of Auguste shaving his own head. When they arrive in Arles, Laurent allows his horse to fall back a little, enough that he won’t draw anyone’s attention, and he drops his head and stays shyly behind Makedon.
Makedon gives him a curious look but allows it, and Damen, who is beautiful, sweet and dearly beloved, draws no attention to it, even though Laurent knows he’s noticed.
His heart speeds up when men arrive to meet them, but Auguste is not among them. He sends his apologies, but he’s been caught up in something. They’re led to their rooms. Damen, as the only visiting royalty there for the wedding, is given what was Auguste’s old room. On the way, they pass where Laurent’s old chambers had been, except they’ve been rebuilt since the fire his mother set and are no longer bed quarters.
“It’s a library,” Laurent says, in confusion.
“Yes,” Damen gives him an odd look. “You’ve seen those before.”
They have barely had long enough to get settled, when there’s a knock at the door, and two women are being let into the room.
One of them is a mousy looking woman that Laurent has never seen before, and the other is unmistakably Jokaste.
“Damianos!” she says, smiling. “Finally.”
She is stunning, Laurent thinks. Her blonde hair is a little darker than his, and styled elegantly atop her head. Her dress looks to be an odd mix between Veretian and Akielon, definitely custom made and it suits her perfectly. Laurent feels an odd stab of envy, at the seamless way she appears to have slipped into her life as someone not quite Akielon and not quite Veretian.
Damen stands and grins at her, when she kisses his cheek and beams at him.
“Jokaste,” he says, “You are as lovely as I remember. I’d like you to meet Laurent, Makedon’s son.”
Jokaste turns to him. “Oh yes,” she says, “I’ve heard rumours about your lover even in Arles. Hello, Laurent.”
Then she gets a good look at him and takes a step back. “Ah,” she says, and then she’s frowning. “You have an aristocratic nose,” she says. “Almost like royalty.”
“So I’m told,” Laurent says.
“Who’s your friend?” Damen asks, gesturing to the mousy woman who is standing in the corner, ignoring them.
“My escort,” she replies, but she’s still looking at Laurent. “The fear of bastards is still alive and well in Vere, despite King Auguste’s efforts to change that. Have you been to Arles before, Laurent? You are Veretian, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Yes,” Laurent says. “I was here as a child. I don’t remember much.”
“I’ll have to introduce you to Auguste then,” she says. “Perhaps he can jog your memory.”
“Perhaps,” Laurent says.
“I’ve heard rumours that you have lovely hair. Why the scarf?”
Damen is watching them a little like how one watches a sports match that they haven’t figured out the rules of.
“You don’t need to see my hair, do you?” Laurent says.
“I suppose not,” she says. She considers Laurent for a long moment before she says, very delicately. “I’ll introduce you to Auguste in two days. If you don’t find a chance to do it before then.”
“Thank you,” Laurent replies, just as precisely.
“Well,” Jokaste says. “I better go. Weddings take a lot of time. I’m sure you two will find that out for yourselves soon. It’s wonderful to see you again, Damen. And to meet you, Laurent.”
“Goodbye?” Damen says, watching her sweep out the door as quickly as she’d come in.
“That was odd, wasn’t it?” Damen asks, when she’s gone.
“Was it?” Laurent replies, “I didn’t notice.”
Obviously, Laurent has underestimated his resemblance to his brother, but he’s not sure if that will be noticed by anyone but Jokaste, who seems sharper than most people. Regardless, she’s given Laurent two days to go to Auguste, and that means he has to decide his approach.
He spends the first day in the shadows. He’s been long gone from the palace, but he remembers the hidden nooks and barely used passageways as if he never left. He overhears enough conversations to learn that the people seem generally pleased with Auguste’s rule - he appears to be just a fair and intelligent as Laurent has always known him to be.
Laurent begs off of the lunch that Damen goes to, and takes that time to sit on their bed, and leaf through the only book he brought with him. The Veretian fairytales look a little worse for wear, due to the book’s age and how often he’s gone through it, but it’s still beautiful and the only thing he has from his life as a prince.
To be perfectly honest, Laurent is terrified. He knows that it’s time to reveal himself to Auguste, past time really, and Laurent is filled with the boyish hope the Auguste will recognise him instantly and take him into his arms like when he was a child and maybe they can both finally heal the last of their wounds together.
But he’s also afraid. Just because Jokaste has seen the resemblance, doesn’t mean Auguste will, or that he’ll believe Laurent. The only thing he doesn’t fear is Damen finding out. His lover has proven thoughtful and resilient to every personal truth that Laurent has thrown him, and at least that is something Laurent can be secure in. Being a Prince is hardly the worst fact about Laurent.
Damen ducks his head into the room after lunch. He doesn’t suspect who Laurent is, but he’s a perceptive man and he knows there’s something odd about Laurent being here in Arles.
“Auguste is having an audience with his people,” Damen says. “There’s a balcony that we can watch at from above, and I don’t think anyone will notice us. If you want.”
Laurent smiles, snapping the book shut and getting up to follow him.
He knows exactly the place that Damen means, because it’s where he used to watch his father rule as a child. The balconied area is built for members of royalty and nobility to come and go as they please, without drawing attention to themselves. Damen has access because he is a Prince and he brings Laurent with him.
This is where Laurent gets to finally get his first glimpse of Auguste, fully grown into his place as a king.
“He’s wearing black,” Laurent says, frowning.
“Yes,” Damen agrees. “From what I’ve heard, he’s kept his hair short and his clothing black since the death of his family. Six years of mourning, it hardly bears thinking about.”
Laurent is silent then, looking down at his brother. Auguste is handsome in the way all golden Prince’s should be, even with his closely shorn hair and the severity of his jacket. Beside him, sits Jokaste, resplendent in a light blue gown. They suit each other, side by side, a fairytale image of royalty.
Laurent finds himself clutching at Damen’s arm.
“Laurent?” Damen murmurs, concerned.
Laurent shakes his head. For the first time in years, Laurent allows himself to think of his uncle. His uncle who, according to Damen, is a danger to Auguste’s throne. If the man wants to overthrow Auguste, then surely he sees the danger that is this wedding. It won’t be long before Jokaste starts giving birth to heirs and Regnier will fall further from the line.
Perhaps Jokaste thinks she has these things in hand, but she has been fighting against Laurent’s uncle for the last six years without triumph. Laurent cannot reveal himself to Auguste, not yet, when Auguste still isn’t safe. He cannot risk it until their uncle is out of the picture for good.
“Damen,” Laurent says, quietly. “Do you know if the King’s uncle is here for the wedding?”
“He is,” Damen says, cautiously.
Laurent nods, because he doesn’t think he’ll be able to speak. He can hear blood rushing in his ears, and he feels suddenly cold. He knows what he has to do. Laurent is going to murder his uncle.
While Damen is off at dinner with Auguste, Laurent sits in their rooms and thinks. His uncle is too intelligent to ever be outwardly caught at wrong-doing, and thus he cannot be punished or brought to justice. Auguste, who is loving to a fault, mustn’t be willing to take out their uncle without proof and perhaps part of him is reluctant to kill what he thinks is his last family member.
Jokaste, in her part as the future queen, is unable to directly make a move without threatening her position in court. There is no one but Laurent who is sure enough and willing enough to kill his uncle and thus the tasks falls to him. He will not leave Auguste behind, defenceless, again.
Laurent tucks a knife into his sleeve, and then takes it back out. He needs to do this tonight, he thinks, while he’s still certain that it’s the right course of action. Before he can see Damen again or Makedon and rue the fact that he probably won’t get away with this. If his uncle’s guards get to him, and kill him, he hopes Jokaste will be wise enough to let his true identity go unnoticed.
Laurent takes a deep breath. He knows where his uncle’s rooms are - as much as he wishes he didn’t - and hopes that they haven’t moved. He unwraps his hair from the headscarf slowly, and then undoes his braid.
Laurent takes off his jacket, so that he is only in his flowing white undershirt and trousers, and then, after some consideration, takes off his boots as well. Barefoot and with his hair obscuring his face, he looks vulnerable. Not young enough to be of his Uncle’s tastes, but hopefully whoever is guarding his Uncle’s room won’t be aware of that. If Laurent crosses his arms, he can obscure the knife in his sleeve.
Laurent looks at himself in the mirror for a very long moment and then he leaves.
“Who are you?” The guard asks, leaning lazily against the door of his uncle’s rooms and looking nothing at all how a royal guard should.
“I was told,” Laurent says, quietly, shyly, “to come here.”
“I think you’re early, kid.”
Dinner mustn’t be finished yet. “I can wait,” Laurent says.
“Sure,” The guard shrugs. “Go ahead.”
If Laurent survives this, he’s going to get this guard fired, he thinks. Then the door is opening and Laurent is stepping into the room, and, ah.
So, that’s why the guard didn’t seem bothered.
In the room, as expected, is Laurent’s uncle, looking perhaps a little older, but still every inch the man Laurent remembers from the worst of his nightmares.
Sitting across from him, on a separate couch, is Damen and Makedon.
The three men all look up at Laurent, and Laurent can see that shock of recognition that crosses his uncle’s features.
Laurent doesn’t know what his own expression is doing, but Damen is already stepping towards him with concern. “What’s wrong?”
Laurent shakes his head. “I didn’t realise you’d be here,” he says, honestly. “I’m sorry.” He can’t let this change anything. He moves towards his uncle, and away from Damen. This is the only time that he’ll have the element of surprise on his side. If he leaves now or hesitates, his uncle will only have time to plot against him.
“Ah,” Uncle says, and he must know that Laurent is here to kill him, that no-one here is likely to help him, because when backed against a wall, his uncle will always try to shock people into stopping. His uncle looks at Laurent, looking vulnerable and hateful, and thinks he is too damaged, too ashamed to have told anyone about his childhood.
And so “Ah,” Uncle says. “If it isn’t my former bed boy.”
If Damen attacks his uncle, it will be catastrophic to the alliance. His uncle knows that Laurent cannot risk that, and so he forces Laurent to protect him. Damen moves towards his uncle and Laurent gets in front, drops his knife so that he can grab Damen’s arms and push him back.
“No,” Laurent says, “Damen, no.”
Damen moves to push past Laurent and then suddenly he stops.
Then there is a cut-off grunt of pain and Laurent turns to see Makedon, holding Laurent’s discarded knife, and his uncle clutching fruitlessly at the open wound in his neck. Makedon hit an artery, Laurent thinks distantly, judging by the way his uncle’s blood spurts before he is slumped over in death.
His uncle hadn’t known that Laurent was alive, and thus he couldn’t have known what Makedon - famous for hating Veretians - would do upon hearing his uncle speak of Laurent’s past like that. To be fair, it hadn’t even occurred to Laurent that he’d have to stop Makedon from lashing out.
“You killed him.” Laurent’s voice is choked.
“Yes,” Makedon says, calmly. There’s blood on his face and neck. He must have gotten caught in the spray.
“Good,” Damen says vehemently. He tries to turn Laurent away from the scene, but Laurent resists.
“No,” Laurent says. “This is - the alliance- Auguste cannot let something like this…” He’s having trouble breathing. The death of his uncle pales in comparison to the fact that Makedon cannot get away with this. Auguste will be forced to charge him. He’ll be executed.
“Give me the knife,” Laurent says. He holds out a hand. “I’ll say I did it, I’m Veretian - it’s what I came to do anyway.”
“No,” Makedon says. He wipes the blade on his chiton with the casualness of a man who has killed many times.
“Makedon.” Laurent wants to stomp his foot like a child in the face of Makedon’s idiotic stubbornness.
The night has to get worse though, of course it does. Before Laurent can reason with Makedon, the door opens and in steps, Auguste.
“Excuse my lateness,” Auguste says, closing the door behind him. Then he looks up and freezes at the sight of their uncle, gruesome in death. Auguste puts a hand to his sword and opens his mouth to call for the guard outside, and Laurent jumps forward.
“Auguste wait,” he says, desperately. This time, when Auguste freezes, it lasts for much longer.
“There’s an-” Damen begins, but Laurent cuts him off.
“Quiet, Damen,” he says. He takes a step towards his brother, slowly. “Auguste, I can explain.”
Auguste is blinking rapidly, his expression crumbling into a mixture of confusion and despair. “Laurent,” Auguste whispers his name like a prayer.
“I’m sorry,” Laurent says. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to leave, but we had no choice.”
“Laurent,” Auguste says. “You’re alive.”
“I still have the book you gave me,” he tells him, desperately. “The fairytale one.”
“Laurent,” Auguste says, and then his legs seem to give up and Laurent has to dive forward to catch his brother, and they both fall to their knees together. “How are you alive?”
They’re both clutching at each other, kneeling. “I’m not a bastard,” Laurent tells him, “Mother would never - uncle sent that man that she killed in her rooms, but she knew what the rumours would do, she knew I wasn’t safe if people thought I was- I wanted to come back but we couldn’t- I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Laurent buries his head against Auguste’s shoulder, and Auguste clutches him with all the strength that Laurent remembers. He knows his tears are going to ruin his brother’s jacket, but he’s so damn relieved to be recognised and with him that he can’t find it in himself to care.
“Well,” Laurent hears Makedon say from somewhere behind him. “Fuck.”
Sometime later, when the two Veretian prince’s have gotten something of a hold of themselves, Jokaste sweeps into the room. Damen watches her take in the scene - from Regnier, dead and bloodied on the couch, to Laurent and Auguste, holding each other on the floor, and then Makedon and Damen himself, standing awkwardly.
“Hmm,” she murmurs, closing the door behind her. “And here I had the poison all ready to go tomorrow. Admittedly, that wouldn’t have been quite as dramatic as this.”
Auguste looks up at the sound of her voice and seems to sway slightly in her direction. Even stupefied by discovering his long-dead brother, Auguste looks at her like a man in love. “Jo,” he says, and then by way of useless explanation, “Laurent.”
“Yes,” Jokaste says. “I saw him yesterday. You have the same nose.”
Auguste makes a betrayed noise, and Laurent speaks up from his shoulder. “She gave me two days to reveal myself to you, before she did.”
“Oh,” Auguste says.
“He’s to be my brother in law,” Jokaste explains. “I wanted him to like me.”
Damen sits down on the couch - the one Regnier didn’t bleed out on. He’s not sure he’s capable of actual words yet.
“What do we do?” Auguste asks his fiancee.
Jokaste sighs, and holds a hand out to Makedon. “Give me the knife.”
Laurent frowns when Makedon does.
“We can deal with the Laurent situation later,” Jokaste says, roughly pulling her hair half undone. “First we have to get away with murder.”
She grabs the hem of her dress and rips it violently. “Makedon, stand there,” she points next to Regnier, “that’ll explain away the blood. Damen, stand up. Laurent, Auguste, you too.”
They all do as they're told. “Now then,” she says. “Regnier went mad with anger at getting further from the throne. He attacked me. You all witnessed it, and I had to kill him in defense of myself.” She turns to Auguste, “I’m suddenly very pleased with Veretian fashion, for making the neckline of my wedding dress so high.”
And then she drags the knife down her chest, blood welling, before Auguste can stop her. “Jokaste!” Auguste says, horrified.
“It won’t scar,” she says, scoffing. “Alright, everyone look suitably shocked and upset.”
Damen thought wistfully of Akielos, where trickery like this wasn’t necessary. Then Jokaste was screaming and guards were pouring into the room and Damen resigned himself to being very tired tomorrow.
“Well, that was something,” Laurent says, the next morning over breakfast.
Damen laughs, because he’s not really sure what else to do at this point.
“So mother is married to Makedon,” Auguste clarifies.
“Yes,” Laurent says. “She didn’t marry him until Father died. But then, she used a fake name, so I’m not sure where the marriage lies with legality.”
“Henrietta,” Makedon says, grabbing an apple. “What’s her real name?”
“Hennike,” Laurent and Auguste both say, in the same tone of voice.
“How didn’t I see this?” Damen asks Jokaste, and she pats his arm consolingly, as if he is a particularly slow child.
“You’re so tall,” Auguste says, grinning at Laurent, “but you’re still-”
“Shorter than you, yes, I know,” Laurent smiles. “We’ll see how smug you are when you see how fast my newest pony is.”
The brothers laugh together.
“I took war advice from an enemy Prince,” Damen says faintly. “Before Marlas.”
Laurent grins. “It was good advice.”
“It was,” Damen agrees.
“I hope your wedding is a lot less dramatic,” Jokaste says, “or my heart won’t be able to take it.”
“It’ll be in Akielos,” Damen says. “Of course it will be less dramatic.”
Laurent keeps smiling. Damen thinks, he can come to terms with any surprises if Laurent keeps smiling like that, like the world is good and he is truly happy.
“What do we do now?” Auguste says, suddenly. “How do we explain Laurent to the people?”
“We don’t,” Laurent says, and Jokaste nods in agreement.
“But you’re a prince,” Auguste says.
“I’m marrying Damianos,” Laurent says. “I’ll still be royalty. And I’ll have plenty of reasons to come see you. I don’t care what the Kingdom thinks of me.”
Auguste nods. “If you’re sure,” he says, with the voice of a man that would do anything to please his brother.
“As long as you know who I am,” Laurent says.
“We should go south,” Jokaste says, “after the wedding, to take a break from court and get used to being married.”
“Yes,” Auguste says.
Jokaste looks to Makedon. “What do you think the weather Aquitart is like, this time of year?”
“Ha,” Makedon says. “Warm.”
“Wonderful. You should bring your wife.”
“Makedon,” Laurent says, “This makes you Auguste’s stepfather as well.”
While everyone is distracted by this train of thought, Laurent turns to Damen and leans into him gently. “Is this okay?” he asks, softly.
Damen grins at his lover, who is beautiful and brave and possibly the best man that he has ever met. “Yes,” Damen says. “Are you okay?”
And Laurent, Laurent’s smile is warm like the sunrise, and sweet like honey. “Never better.”