It was already dusk by the time Herode began the journey back to his rooms.
He had always prided himself on his depth of knowledge-- hard earned over the years-- but at some point it appeared he had grown complacent, and the mountain of new questions arising following the deaths of the Regent and Kastor, and the new and tentative alliance between Akeilos and Vere, required so much consideration of so many factors that for the first time in years he was finding himself out of his depth in council meetings, unfamiliar with Akeilon terms and customs, unused to poring over in such detail policies that had been routine for years.
He had always been passable at the Akeilon language, but years of disuse had brought him back to a nearly elementary level, so that he spent a considerable amount of his time in the large library at the center of the palace at Ios, attempting to relearn lost knowledge, though he was finding the language more difficult now than he ever remembered it being as a young man.
And yet, he had already failed the Crown so totally he felt it his solemn duty to make himself as useful as he could. Even if it meant spending the better part of his twilight years in a far away city, behind enemy walls, sleeping in a strange bed and eating strange foods, barely able to tell the difference between enemy and ally.
Even the palace itself unsettled him. Though it was undoubtedly beautiful, every facet of it was foreign, all white marble and ivory, held up by countless, equally colorless pillars. Simple geometric designs on the walls spoke of sturdiness and durability, instead of the rich color and opulence typical of Veretian design. Most of the palace corridors were open to the air as well, the weather in southern Akeilos allowing and even demanding this, as he imagined if this palace were built in the same style as the royal residence at Arles, all closed off and carpeted, the heat would have been stifling. As it was, he still found himself sometimes dizzy with it, when the temperature peaked at midday.
The simplicity and open design of the palace meant that your eyes were drawn to other things, like the intricate, eerily life-like statues Akeilos was known for, or the gardens that overflowed from vases and numerous square courtyards open to the sun, where large basins caught rainwater, and there grew colorful, oddly shaped plants and flowers that Herode knew the names of but had never seen himself.
So much change, so fast. Perhaps too much, he feared, for an old man like him. He wasn't sure when it had happened, but the years where he had craved excitement and novelty had passed, and he found himself longing only for the familiar.
But Ios was where the monarchy was, at least for now (there was talk of constructing a new capital near the Akeilon border, the idea of which gave Herode heartburn), and so it was in Ios where Herode would be as well, for as long as he was needed.
He turned the corner down the long corridor that led, eventually, to his rooms, and found a young man standing alone in the courtyard, looking out into one of the larger, abundant gardens of the palace, wearing a only light white chiton and sandals, blonde hair tumbling loose over his shoulders. The light was low and Herode's eye sight, poor since his youth, had only grown poorer, so it was only when he stepped closer that he could see how fine the fabric of the chiton was despite it's plainness, the way the man was holding himself, and realized with a start that it was the Prince.
No. As of fourteen days previous, it was the King.
"Your Highness." Herode exclaimed, attempting to bring himself to one knee, though it ached.
"Good evening, Herode." King Laurent the V said without turning to face him. "No need to kneel." and though Herode might have thought this a kindness to spare an old man, his tone was without warmth.
In Laurent's hand, the hand circled by the golden cuff that never failed to draw Herode's eye with it's shocking nature, rested a small bouquet of flowers, clearly freshly picked. Blue and pink Hydrangeas, delicate white Lily's of the Valley.
At the edge of the garden directly in front of where Laurent was standing, large enough to partially engulf a nearby pillar, was a tall bush full of blooming Gardenias. There were so many in the courtyard that the whole corridor carried the fragrance of them.
Strange to see so many of them growing naturally, Herode thought, when in Vere, they were a rarity, grown specially in glass structures made to retain heat.
"Your Highness." Herode said again. "It is late. I did not expect- May I inquire what you brings you to this corner of the palace at such an hour?"
"I was just enjoying an evening stroll." the King answered, which was quite obviously false. He wasn't convinced Laurent did anything for enjoyment at all, let alone take leisurely strolls.
Herode had last seen the King that morning at a Council meeting just before dawn, sharp tongued with somehow even less patience than usual, fully laced up in his royal blue livery, before he had rode off to inspect the troops stationed at the nearby camp, a detour on the way to his meeting with the Vaskian ambassador.
The King always exuded an aura of royalty, the sense of being untouchable. While it was befitting of his status, it was also... distant. He could be charming, certainly, particularly to strangers, but anyone who interacted with him often would see it's lack of authenticity. Laurent had never been able to replicate the atmosphere of warmth that had surrounded both Auguste and their father, and even the Regent to some extent, the ability to make those around them feel welcome, at ease.
No one felt at ease around Laurent of Vere.
Except-- in a twist of fate that Herode did not completely understand or frankly, accept-- the King of Akeilos.
The relationship between the two of them remained a mystery to Herode and a source of endless gossip to everyone else. Herode knew better than to believe what he heard, particularly in this case, because he had heard any number of outrageous and obviously false tales; from the two of them single-handedly taking down clans of mountain raiders, to them traipsing the countryside in disguise with the King of Vere posing as a female prostitute.
Though the outline of events was common knowledge by now, the details of whatever had occurred between them during Damianos's capture up to the Regent's exposure and death remained largely unknown. They were lovers, this much had been made abundantly clear, and the consensus among both Akeilons and Veretians seemed to be that the other country's King was being beguiled and played for a fiddle by their own.
Herode himself did not subscribe to that line of thought. He had seen Laurent and Damianos interact enough times-- shared glances full of meaning, private words and sly smiles-- that it was clear to him their closeness was legitimate. And though he wanted to find that reassuring, a part of him still wondered what type of man exactly could let himself lie with his brother's killer.
It was odd to see Laurent now, in such simple dress and alone, looking very young and strangely forlorn in the low light of the evening. Even clothed in foreign attire, his demeanor now somehow reminded Herode of the Laurent of his memory, not the sullen, caustic adolescent, but the young child peaking out from behind Auguste or his mother's skirts, eager to please and so shy it had been a challenge to teach him proper manners.
But that had been many years ago, and that child had disappeared so totally it was as if he had died with his brother.
What would you think, Aleron, of your son now? Herode wondered, and could not imagine the answer. The truth was, though Aleron had obviously cared for his younger son, his attention was always on the elder, the heir, as was everyone else's. Herode had thought he had already mourned the loss of his old friend, that twin tragedy that took both father and son, but recent revelations had ripped open those wounds anew, and he found the previous King often at the forefront of his mind. What would you do in my place?
As always, the dead did not answer him, and he and Laurent stood alone.
Unsure what to say next, Herode asked. "Did your meeting today go well?"
"It went as expected." Laurent said. "Our relationship with Vask continues to be strong and I plan on keeping it that way in the future. They indicated an interest in establishing new trade routes now that the Veretian-Akeilon border will be safer to travel."
"I'm glad to hear it."
"Yes." Then, a bit stiff. "Thank you for your council on the matter."
"Of course, Your Highness." Herode said, though his council had been largely symbolic. Laurent had already decided what he was going to do and gathered the means to do it before even presenting the idea.
Laurent ran the council very differently than the Regent had, or his father before him. The Regent seemed inclined to personal obsessions, about which any advice would fall on deaf ears; sometimes skirmishes or foreign spy work, sometimes construction or vanity projects, but otherwise he left the running of the country very heavily to his Council.
King Aleron had been more involved, like Laurent, but with an understanding of what the Council existed for-- providing council. He had understood that even though the King was a great man, it was impossible for any one person to know everything a King needed to know. It was clear to Herode that Laurent resented having having to rely on other's expertise and judgement in any capacity, even in small matters.
And of course, Laurent was not the sole leader of the council, like his father and the Regent had been. He and Damianos shared equal power, by their own decree.
During meetings, Damianos addressed Laurent with respect, though not deference, and a shocking amount of familiarity that Laurent often did not reciprocate. In general, Damianos spoke in broad strokes, with a level of tactical consideration and understanding of diplomacy that Herode struggled not to be impressed with. Laurent would dive into the minutiae of proposals and plans, demanding a shocking amount of detail from his advisers, and often eclipsing every person in the room with his own knowledge, leaving council members feeling obsolete. Herode had hardly ever seen Laurent and Damianos disagree, and if they did it was over trivial matters, and resolved behind closed doors.
Though they nearly always attended council meetings together, Herode had noted, Damianos had been absent that morning.
"Herode." Laurent said suddenly. "In Vere, all flowers have meaning attached to them."
"I- yes, your Highness." Herode said, startled.
"I- I have learned much of Akeilon culture, and yet there is still so much left to learn. Is it the same, do you think, in Akeilos? Do they assign messages to flowers? Would they share the same meanings?"
Herode stared for a moment, taken aback. It was true each flower had a meaning in Vere, and Herode knew them all well. Herode's lover had once been one of several florist's employed at Arles, in charge of arranging and maintaining a number of the delicate and stunning displays throughout the palace.
He wondered if Lauren't knew this, and then realized this was a foolish question. He was certain by now that Laurent knew everything about everyone he came in regular contact with.
Herode's eyes came to rest again on the flowers in Laurent's hands. Pink Hydrangeas for conveying heartfelt emotion, blue Hydrangeas could symbolize frigidity, but also were often given in sincere apology. Lily's of the Valley meant sweetness, purity of heart.
He knew well, also, the meaning of the Gardenia, which Laurent had not yet added to his collection, but was looking at so intently.
Herode remembered being handed a single sweet smelling flower so long ago, with a question implicit in his lover's eyes; the joy of receiving such a thing, and then the reverse of it, wracked with pain as he lay wreathe of them atop a grave, nearly ten long years ago.
A feeling began to come over Herode, something akin to dread, as he asked. "Are the flowers for the King of Akeilos?"
"Yes." Laurent said without inflection, after a slight hesitation. "I- last night the King and I were having a discussion and I said some things that were... less than diplomatic. It's important at this stage, for both our countries, that Damen and I be as cohesive as possible and project stability. We can't afford distractions, and I want to smooth this matter over as quickly as possible."
"I see." Herode said. "So you, the King, have come yourself, after dark, to collect a bouquet of flowers with hidden meanings... all for the sake of international relations?"
This was, perhaps, a bold line of questioning, but something about Laurent the way he looked now made him seem more open to questioning than he ever appeared in council meetings, always vaguely disdainful and laced up to the neck.
Laurent himself seemed surprised Herode had asked it, but said "Well. Perhaps I have motivations beyond diplomacy." His cheeks were slightly pink.
After a moment, Herode said "I apologize, my lord. I must confess I have no knowledge of what meaning Akeilons may assign to flowers, if such a thing means anything to them at all."
Laurent nodded. "In any case, giving flowers to a lover in apology is universal, I'm fairly certain." he said, reaching out to pluck two blooming Gardenia's from the branch nearest to him. Then softly, bringing a Gardenia to his face to smell it. "Perhaps he need not know what they mean."
"I-do you know what they mean?" Herode asked. Even in the form of a flower, the sentiment implied was no light thing.
"I do." Laurent said coldly.
"Your majesty," Herode found himself saying. "I know I have no right to say this, taken as I was by your Uncle's treachery-- something I will atone for for the rest of my days. But Damianos... how certain are you that he can truly be relied on? He cannot, in the end, put Vere first. As you always must."
"My uncle," Laurent said after a moment. "Was a master of what he did, and what he did was lie. If I were to strip titles from all those who were ever taken in by him, I would have to abdicate myself. I hold no ill will towards those who believed what he said, only those who willingly went along with his treachery. Which you did not. As for Damon," he continued. "I already have laid the entire future of Vere in his hands before, not to mention my own life, and I have always seen it safely returned. It is true he must always put Akeilos first, and he has never pretended otherwise, but the gain of Akeilos is no longer the detriment of Vere. He is one of the most honorable men I have ever known, certainly more than myself."
"I must disagree, your majesty--" Herode interjected automatically.
To his surprise, Laurent laughed and said wryly. "I appreciate your confidence in me, Herode, but I'm afraid that was a statement of fact."
"You are the King and free to do as you like." Herode said after a pause, feeling lost as to how to navigate this strange coversation. "But I feel it would be against my oath if I did not advise you an abundance of caution in this-- entire affair. And in this, as with all things, we must be cognizant of public perception. Particularly in such a delicate time."
Laurent turned to him, lips curled in cruel amusement. "So you think that fucking the infamous Akeilon villain who killed my own brother is bad for public perception?" He asked in an incongruous, almost cheerful tone.
Herode sensed he may have just stepped on the tail of the snake.
"Apologies, Your Highness. I meant no offense." Herode said quickly.
"Of course not. Don't worry, Herode, I'm well aware of what's said about me." Laurent continued. "Though I do wish people would make up their minds. Am I a blushing virgin taken by his first taste of cock? Or a cold hearted snake willing to fuck his brother's killer for political gain? Then again, perhaps I'm both." He said, turning to Herode with a sharp humorless smile and leaving him speechless.
Then, a moment later, in a different, quieter tone, almost as if he was speaking to himself. "Or perhaps I'm neither."
Laurent took a deep breath, exhaling out, though his posture remained rigid and tense. "I.. appreciate your advice, Herode," he said, the words stiff and awkward "But I have been cautious, always. Perhaps too cautious, at times. Whatever the outcome of this great experiment, Damen and I will face it together."
"Great experiment?" Herode repeated. "The alliance between Vere and Akeilos?"
Now Laurent smiled a real smile, less frightening than before, but still not at all a soft expression. "That is part of it, yes. There are further plans."
Herode waited for him to continue- the answer had done more to unsettle him than reassure- but Laurent did not elaborate, and the smile faded.
"That reminds me Herode, I need to ask something of you." He said in a tone that made clear it was not a question at all.
"Of course, Your Highness."
"Tomorrow there will be a package arriving, likely around midday. I was going to receive it myself, but with the visit from the Patran envoy it seems unlikely I'll be able to. I would like you to receive it in person. The contents are delicate. Alert Paschale as soon as it arrives and pass it on to him. I will give you a letter tomorrow morning with my seal, as I instructed the carrier not to release it to anyone but me."
"I-certainly, Your Highness. May I inquire what the package contains?" It could only be something of a delicate nature, perhaps documents around a sensitive trade deal, notes from foreign spies, possibly gold or currency from Arles.
Laurent hesitated slightly before saying. "Nicaise's remains. The ashes, at least."
Laurent said. "He told me once one of his life's ambitions was to travel abroad. And I thought he might want to be somewhere far from Arles. Then again, he did like to be contrary, so I can't be certain. Damen has agreed a place will be made for him in the palace crypt. It will have to do."
Herode felt nearly sick with horror.
He knew now, of course, that the Regent had been an incredibly accomplished liar. But there had always been a ring of truth in what he said about Laurent, and Laurent often did nothing to dispute what his uncle said of him, only grew increasingly sullen and disdainful in his responses, put on petty and childish shows of rebellion.
As he entered adolescence, his retinue of soldiers and guards became intensely loyal, and would be heard describing him as capable, intelligent, and often cruel. And Laurent drilled them relentlessly, as if enemy attack were only moments away. This, among other things, had always been a source of weariness for the Council.
The man the Regent described-- the man Laurent had presented himself as-- would never wander a palace alone to pick flowers for a lover. Would never have planned to bury an orphan child in a royal palace, let alone attend to the matter personally.
So who exactly was this man who stood before him?
The Regent said Laurent was a liar and a coward, a traitor to his country. Laurent's soldiers, who obeyed his every whim, said he was a reptile. Capable, but cruel and cold.
The person in front of him looked only like a young man, with a quiet and serious nature, plagued by uncertainties, hesitant and earnest in the face of his first love.
It occurred to Herode with a sickening finality that it was possible he had never been anything else. That perhaps the child he'd been had never disappeared, only learned to build himself in response to the tragedy and myth that grew around him.
My God. Herode thought, thinking of Laurent standing before him only weeks previous, hands and feet shackles, gaze steady and without surprise as a black flag was drawn. The look of a man facing down the inevitable. What did we nearly do?
Finally, Herode managed to speak. "This is a very kind thing, your majesty."
"It is only right." Laurent said, in the same emotionless, formal tone he'd used the whole conversation. "After all, in a way, I owe Nicaise my crown."
"Still." Herode said. "It is kind. Nicaise was a young boy. He did not deserve his fate."
"No." Laurent said quietly. "He did not. But then, people rarely deserve the fates they are given."
Laurent turned to him with a searching look. After a long moment he took a small pouch out of a pocket sewed into his chiton and dropped it in Herode's palm, extended automatically.
"Give it to Paschale, to be placed with the remains." He said. "I had always intended to give it back."
"I-I will, your highness." Herode said, head reeling.
Laurent nodded. "Thank you." he said, before plucking a last Gardenia to add to his bouquet and walking purposefully away, leaving Herode standing alone in the courtyard, bewildered.
Herode unlaced the pouch and emptied it's contents. In his hand sat a single sapphire earring.
- - - - - - - - - -
Herode wandered down the halls, still dazed from the unexpected encounter, when on turning a corner he nearly walked into the towering form of the King of Akeilos, looking no worse for the wear for having been stabbed only a few weeks ago.
"I-Exhalted." Herode said clumsily in Akeilon, bowing slightly, but making no attempt to kneel.
"Herode. Good evening." Damianos said in flawless Veretian. "Have you happened to see the King of Vere? I seem to have lost him."
"I just saw him." Herode said, still too shaken to be as polite as he should have been. "He turned down that hall."
"Did you happen to get a gauge on his mood?" he asked conspiratorially.
"I-I'm not sure, to be entirely honest." Herode confessed.
"I see. Well, if he was in a bad mood, you would know it." Damen said, sounding amused. "Which hall did you say?"
"I can show you." Herode said, leading Damen down the long hall and then back to the left from where he'd come.
"Ah." Damen said, as they turned the corner and when his eyes adjusted, Herode saw Laurent was standing there in the corridor, leaning against the wall and holding his bouquet of flowers in front of him with a peculiar expression, as if he wasn't entirely sure how they had got there or what to do with them now that they were there.
"Damen." Laurent started, when he heard their approach, reflexively moving to hide the flowers behind his back before seeming to realize this was foolish.
"Laurent." Damen replied before saying "Thank you, Herode." and Herode understood himself to be dismissed.
"On an evening stroll?" Herode heard Damen ask as he turned the corner to give them privacy.
"Something like that." Laurent replied.
Herode was aware that the polite and proper thing to do was to continue down the hall back to his own rooms. That, if he was being very technical, spying on his own King, let along two Kings together, may well be treason.
But it seemed age and fatigue had not totally overwhelmed his sense of curiosity yet (though possibly his common sense), because he stayed where he was, standing just out of sight. He felt like he was on the edge of understanding something important.
"This has become something of a hobby, has it not?" Damen asked. Herode's eyes may have been failing, but his ears remained in perfect working order.
"I'm still learning the palace. I like to know every facet of it." Laurent said. "And I enjoy walking. This is the first time since I was a child that I've been able to wander the halls I live in without a retinue."
"Because of your Uncle?" Damen asked.
"Yes. If I walked alone at Arles he'd often run into me 'accidentally', or else send one of his thugs to stalk around behind me. They usually didn't do anything other than make ugly threats, but I quickly understood it would be foolish to be so vulnerable. Actually attempting to murder me didn't start until later-- well, you already know. You were there."
"It was a rather dramatic attempt." Damen noted.
"Excessively so." Laurent agreed. "If he hadn't had the need to turn everything into a spectacle he could have killed me several times over." he said matter-of-factly.
There was a short pause before Damen asked. "Have you taken an interest in gardening?"
There was a longer, drawn out pause before Laurent spluttered "I-well. Not as it so happens."
"I see. So can I inquire how these came into your possession?" Damen asked. "They're very beautiful."
Herode shifted, careful to stay in the shadows and out of sight, but with a full line of the hall in front of him, and managed to make out the figure of Laurent, awkwardly thrusting his bouquet at Damen, who took it, looking somewhat taken aback.
"I'm sorry." Laurent said suddenly. "For what I said to you last night."
"Oh, love." Damen said, softly. "It's alright. We've both been very- frustrated- sometimes, at the state of things. And I know— Nicaise arrives tomorrow, does he not?” He asked gently. “I’m sorry. I know how much you wanted to help him.”
”With the stakes of our game so high i should be relieved the only cost of my blunders was one childs life.” Laurent said.
”Please, Damen.” Laurent said so quietly it was difficult to hear. “I can't-- I don’t want to talk about Nicaise right now. I just want to apologize.”
“You don’t have to,” Damen said, referring to Laurent with an Akeilon teme of endearment Herode was unfamiliar with. “To be frank, it was hardly the worst thing you’ve said to me. There's nothing to apologize for."
"There is." Laurent insisted. He said. "You are my ally, in all things. I should know better than to take my frustrations out on you. I am trying to work on my... temper."
Damen laughed. "It's refreshing to hear you admit you have one."
"Lack of self-awareness is not a flaw I suffer from."
"No, just the temper."
"Are you done teasing me? I'm trying to apologize."
"I suspect I won't ever be done teasing you." Damen replied. "In any case, I accept your apology. These are lovely, Laurent. Did you gather them yourself?"
"I had some time."
"Ah, yes. As a King of recently destabilized nation, I'm familiar with the abundance of free time we have."
"You're infuriating." Laurent replied flatly.
"So you've told me." Damen said fondly, bringing his bouquet up to his face to inhale the scent. "Did you... did you choose these specially?"
Laurent hesitated before responding. "I did."
"Tell me." Laurent said. "Do flowers carry meanings in Akeilos?"
"They do " Damen said. "But perhaps different meanings than in Vere? Pink Hydrangeas mean prosperity and joy, the blue conveys strength. Lily's of the Valley convey humility, vulnerability. And the Gardenia signifies eternal devotion."
"Well," Laurent said. "At least one of them is the same, then."
Damen said. "Which one?"
Laurent did not answer, but turned and plucked a fresh Gardenia from a nearby bush before holding it out to Damen, in offering.
Damen smiled softly and took it from him without hesitation.
He took one of the Gardenia's from his own bouquet and reached out to tuck it behind Laurents ear. Laurent turned towards him, so his cheek rested against Damen's hand.
“I should know better by now,” Damen said. “but it’s still a revelation sometimes, how sweet you really are.”
Laurent didn’t reply, just looked up at Damen intently, and Herode was unable to make out his expression. Without moving his hand from Laurent, Damen leaned in to meet Laurent in a kiss. It was a brief kiss, gentle and soft, and after, they stood in the low light of dusk, speaking to each other in low voices so that Herode could not understand a thing.
Finally, they separated. Laurent was smiling.
"Perhaps," He distinctly heard Laurent said, in response to some unheard treatise. "If you catch me first." He took off ahead, running down the hall, away from where Herode stood.
"I- Laurent!" Damen protested. "You can't challenge an injured man!"
"But I thought you were totally healed?" Laurent called back. "That's what you told me when you wanted to practice wrestling with Nikandros. And you wouldn't lie to me?"
"I- never, my love." Damen said, running to meet Laurent.
“Yes, that’s what I thought.” Said Laurent, but he made no further attempt to run and Damen soon caught up with him, reaching his arms around Laurent’s waist to lift him up and swing him round.
“Careful!” Laurent protested. “Don’t strain yourself.”
“Laurent, I am nowhere close to straining myself."
“Giant animal.” Laurent muttered distinctly.
Damen laughed. Laurent leaned back and laughed with him, a sharp, boyish laugh, and Herode was quite certain he’d never heard Laurent sound like that.
When Laurent’s father was King, laughter had rang through the halls of the palace. Perhaps it could again, he thought.
The time after Marlas had been such a loss for the country, everyone grieving, for their King, for their Prince, for the part of their nation that had been stolen away.
But perhaps something else had been lost too, something that Herode hadn't even noticed, stifled and locked away under the Regent’s rule. Something close to the nation’s heart.
Herode had woken each day since Marlas, with the goal in mind only of keeping Vere safe, stable, so that it could one day return to what the way it used to be.
But the truth was that Vere would never the country it had been before Marlas, before the Regent. And for the first time, Herode thought that perhaps it shouldn’t. Perhaps it truly was time to let go of the past, to seek new ways forward.
Herode listened as the two Kings footsteps faded away, and turned again to the path towards his own rooms, feeling more at ease than he remembered feeling in years. The night around him was calm and still, and the white stone and greenery of the palace truly was lovely in the moonlight.
His weariness had faded, and he looked forward to the night’s rest so he could wake up early, and begin again.
There was much work to do.