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a diadem, cantarella, and a chestnut filly

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————— LAURENT —————

 

SILENT, sweeping arches might have made the library feel austere, but there was warmth everywhere if you knew how to look, laurent thought. the way the dust hovered lazily in the air, great shafts of early autumn sunlight giving away their presence high in the rafters; the wooden paneling that shone, polished and waxed every week for the benefit of the prince; and the books themselves, some with worn leather covers, pages inscrutable and full of early artesian, the others new, gifts from traveling tutors, achelon philosophers and patran mapmakers. the quiet was warmth, too, the solitude: spoken to only by tutors and servants, laurent could let his mind wander and waltz through the pages. he practiced penmanship with neat, elegant marks, writing letters to no one in particular.

well into the sleepy depths of the afternoon, he stifled a yawn with a lithe little hand, fingers falling to the half-inch of skin between his soft jawline and the neckline of his jacket, where his skin was growing warm and itched a bit, but he would not remove it. it had been a gift from auguste on laurent's thirteenth birthday that spring: a man's doublet, not the soft jacket that he had worn as a child, and he treasured it wholly. the silence was broken by the heaving, creaking old doors, ornately carved and yielding stubbornly to their master. laurent turned, fingers still fiddling with his collar, and smiled hesitantly at the silhouette in the doorway. there were not many men whom the guards outside would allow to intrude on his studies: his uncle, his captain, or—

"hello, brother," auguste murmured, a smile in his words even as he made every attempt at quiet, doing his best to respect the sanctity of the library. he was big, his shoulders broad and high, and filled with such exuberance that it felt sometimes as if laurent had brought a prancing stud into this hallowed hall, a meeting of his two loves and the realization that perhaps they were incompatible. he knew that auguste preferred to be almost anywhere but the library, and so must have come seeking laurent.

laurent had not expected his brother's presence. "i thought you would be busy today." with auguste, he could let his straight shoulders fall a bit, could return to the relaxed posture he adopted while reading.

"i am. exceptionally so. i have barely a moment to breathe." auguste said it like a joke, always with a wink in his voice, but laurent knew it was the truth, and that for him to have made the journey across the gardens to the library was no small sacrifice.

"and so? you've come to read?"

"i've come to sit and talk with my brother. my best friend. because i..." auguste paused, running his finger over the spines of the books piled beside laurent on the long, low table, studying the titles and raising his eyebrows incrementally before continuing. "i know this feels strange to you. i know you're upset. even when i'm busy, you never withdraw from me, but this week you've been as hard to catch as a mouse." the bench that laurent had perched upon creaked under his brother's weight, and they were sitting side by side, not looking at one another but simply pressed thigh to thigh, elbow to elbow.

laurent was cold with shame. he had, at all costs, been avoiding auguste all week, and his efforts had obviously been seen through. but he had not for a moment considered that his brother might note his absence. the week before a royal wedding would have been busy regardless, but it was not the logistics and ceremony that had auguste all-consumed. it was his kemptian bride, princess liesel, who devoured his attention: there was seldom a moment where they were not making one another laugh, some smart joke shared between the two of them, or surveying the goings-on around them with cool, mildly amused elegance. between liesel's presence and the absolute chaos of wedding preparations there was, laurent felt, simply no room for him at his brother's side, and after a day of trailing the happy couple like a starving dog, he had given up. but the idea that auguste had noticed, had clearly looked for laurent and not been able to find him, filled laurent with embarrassment, and he thought sharply that he deserved it for his pettiness, for abandoning auguste. he could say nothing, only purse his lips and gaze down at his book on traditional methods of apiculture. he deserved whatever scolding auguste might give him: for being childish, and selfish, and stubborn.

but his brother was, and always had been, a bastion of kindness, gentle with laurent's sharp and spindly emotions like the illustrations of beekeepers in laurent's book: unfazed, happy to work with such rude, delicate little creatures. auguste knocked the knuckles of his right hand against laurent's left. as usual, any inkling that laurent had about becoming a man was rudely squelched whenever he saw their hands side-by-side. auguste's was thick, mottled with a scar from the arrow he'd been impaled with through the palm at marlas. the ring of his station, a massive sapphire on his middle finger, was twice or three times the size of laurent's little signet ring. auguste's pinky hooked over laurent's index finger affectionately. "nothing will change between you and i," he said, softly enough that the words were for the two of them alone, not even for the books. "i will still have time for you. for riding, and running, and i will keep helping you learn to fight. and we'll still eat dinner together, and mother, too. we will still be a family, laurent. we will just be one bigger, now. liesel will be your sister."

laurent had not thought of it this way before, and he considered the young woman that he knew. liesel, with her dark hair in crescendos of shiny curls, who had brought him gifts every time she'd seen him: exquisitely carved little toy boats, a magnifying glass for reading old and ancient texts, a litter of gangly kemptian wolfhounds who had, with the kennelmaster's help, grown into a pack of handsome, gentle giants who could fell a bear in a hunt. she had proven generous and kind, and liked to tell a bawdy joke behind her delicate hand, and knew how to captain a ship and had, two months prior, began to instruct laurent in dancing, insisting that he learn with a true highborn lady and not a dance instructor. and when he considered her as not a wife to his brother, but as a sister, he found the angular frost around his heart begin to give way. a sister. as beautiful and gentle and witty as his brother.

"you know that i will love you still? and always? and more than anything?" auguste broke the silence, and when laurent looked up, he found his brother's eyes were searching, kind.

laurent gave a minute nod, clearing his throat delicately. "yes." and then, warming more, "mother said that i'm lucky. that if you were a sister, you'd have to move away and live in visby. so after all, i'm glad you get to stay."

"i am king. my place will always be here, with you. and you like liesel, don't you? i love her. she is kind, and wise, like you." he said it with a smile that laurent trusted above all else, one saddened with pity.

"i like her very much. i think... i think i could like having a sister in her. and i am happy you found this kind of love."

"you will too, someday, little laur. you will fall in love with a princess, and she will be kind and wise and beautiful, too. i know that." the rueful smile was still there when he gave laurent's hand a perfunctory, final squeeze, and planted a kiss on his forehead.

 

—————

 

WHEN the sun ducked behind the sloping roofs outside of the library windows, laurent neatly stacked what he'd been reading and writing and selected two weighty tomes that he might carry back to his chambers. they were old artesian myths, and when he would pour over the old heroes and heroines, his imagination would take flight. they were not the kind of books that his tutors approved of, but he did not need their approval to read by the lamplight in his room after dinner.

despite their weight in his arms, he took the long way back to the royal wing: around the eastern wall to the stables, where he could visit his old pony, beatrix, and his new strapping black stallion named cleo, and auguste's favorite mare ada, who was heavily in foal and appreciative of any extra handful of sweet feed that laurent might sneak for her. past the stables were the royal training grounds, a great sawdust ring surrounded by a colonnade through which warm shafts of late afternoon light streamed. it was busy with practicing king's guards and his own men too, the blacksmith with his whetstone sharpening longswords, men tending to armor. it had been a year since the victory at marlas against theomedes, and while it was visible in an eyepatch or a slight limp, this was just the activity of a training yard during peacetime, and it was apparent in the way the men joked and laughed, dispersing from a crowd that had gathered in the middle of the yard. they had just watched something amusing, and laurent was only mildly disappointed to have missed it. generally the only thing good fighting elicited in him was a feeling of incompetence.

laurent ducked and dove between bodies, smiling at any man who looked up to notice him and offer a warm "your highness." he passed a seated orlant, who was bandaging his hand: laurent could see that a monstrously large blood blister had popped in the space between his thumb and forefinger, and winced at the sight. "you'd better work on getting a callus there," he chided, teasing with no leg to stand on when his own collection of calluses was still so meager. jord and auguste were gentle with him when they trained together, and he progressed slowly.

you don't have to be a soldier, though, auguste always said when laurent was in the sawdust again. he'd pick laurent up and toss him over his shoulder and dust off his backside and laugh. father died for that. but laurent knew that was not the case. their father had died trying to incite a war with achelos, and it was only auguste's hard work in the year after his ascension that had begun to mend the rift between their two kingdoms.

he did not have a chance to hear orlant's retort, which would have been ripe. he had been calling over his shoulder, giddily striding away, and when he turned to face forward again, he found his momentum halted by something very solid, very warm, and very fragrant. he stumbled, and righted himself, only to realize that he was not righting himself at all, but was being righted by a pair of large, dusty hands clasping his shoulders. he stared at the obstacle that had veered him off-course: it was a wall of brown muscle, an abdomen wet with sweat where it hadn't been streaked with sawdust.

"little laur!" he heard, felt, saw auguste leap into the colonnade from the ring: he was shirtless, too, white as marble, and just as damp with perspiration, but notably lacked any trace of dust. "you trying to take down this brute? he'd be no match for you. will you throw your books at his head?" it was the kind of genial teasing that the two of them traded, brotherly jibes and a tone reserved for equals.

and so he turned to look up at the brute of which auguste spoke, and he found himself feeling rather vertiginous. rather than angry or irritated, the young man he'd run into had the same expression of joy that auguste wore, the exhausted elation of a soldier after a rousing fight, but tinged with a sheepishness, as if he had been the one who had caused the collision. and perhaps he had been. laurent could really not think critically about the situation, for he had someone else's sweat on his nose and saw that the same sweat had clumped the young man's thick, dark eyelashes, had coated his brown throat in a silky sheen. his throat, and his arms, and his legs, which were bare and dusty up past his knees. laurent felt the itch of his jacket collar more acutely than ever.

"laurent, this is prince damianos, son of theomedes, heir to the achelon throne, and our very honored guest. and this is laurent, my brother, prince of vere, genius, horse-whisperer, poet, dancer, and dangerous practical joker."

"pleased to meet you—i'm sorry—in my haste i wasn't looking where i was going—" laurent might have said the words out loud, or might have simply thought them, or daydreamed them. he only registered the way damianos smiled, easy like auguste but with a more tawdry edge, like he had heard a good joke or bit of gossip. and then jord was there, dusting laurent's shoulders off, telling him he'd need to wash the sweat off of his face and change his jacket, too. "and maybe tomorrow we'll work on your book-throwing technique," he offered dryly in his rough voice, and when laurent looked around for his brother and the achelon prince, they had disappeared into the armory, laughing and ribbing at one another.

 

—————

 

COOL fog had come in the late evening, and there were no stars to be seen that night from the arched windows of the loggia in queen hennike's chambers. but there was the sweet smell of jasmine that wafted in, and the sparkle of the chandelier and all was familiar and comfortable to laurent. he sat in stocking feet on a gold damask tuft, watching his mother ready herself for bed. servants had put her into her dressing gown, but she took to her evening routine alone, sitting straight-backed at a gilded vanity, twisting open a bejeweled jar full of fragrant pink cream. laurent did not watch her apply it, as he'd seen it a hundred times: the way her elegant fingers smoothed over the angular, handsome planes of her face, the faint lines across her forehead and in the corners of her eyes only making her seem more imperial. she is kind, and wise laurent recalled, and beautiful, too. he instead held a magnificent emerald bracelet in his hands, watching the lamplight catch and fling off every gem, the color as rich as the ocean.

"when will i marry?" he asked into the quiet.

"not until you're of age, my love," his mother answered, her voice warm and obviously tired. it was far past his bedtime, but since his father's passing, she had become more lenient in allowing laurent to stay up and keep her company.

"and who will i marry?"

"well, anyone you like." the queen took one final gaze at her reflection in the mirror and, replacing the lid on her jar of cream, sent a cursory glance her son's way. laurent sat up straighter as soon as he felt her gaze on him, and set the bracelet down on the corner of the vanity that he'd plucked it from.

"you will marry a princess from another country. or a veretian noblewoman, perhaps. we will make sure to find you a good fit, as we did for auguste. but your brother had fewer options. a king must marry for the good of his country. a prince may marry for that, but for family, and for love, too."

"but auguste loves liesel," laurent quipped, confronted with the unpleasant possibility that his brother had lied about that.

"yes, he does, and she loves him. they are lucky that way. every marriage is different, laurent. your father and i..."

she paused, and laurent could anticipate the hurt in her voice, but not the slight edge to it. "we grew to love each other. and we did, very much, love each other. but it was not that way in the beginning. the first time i saw your father was on our wedding day. he was a stranger, and then my husband. he married me to cement an alliance between himself and your grandfather, so that kempt and vere might be bound to one another as we were. but he was just and gentle, and in time, i grew to love him."

the quiet that lingered between them was hefty and warm. laurent had never heard his mother speak this way about his father, with this kind of candor. he imagined his mother, young and wary in a foreign country, marrying a complete stranger, and was unsurprised that she had managed to make the best of her situation. the woman in front of him now was as strong as anything, could surely weather any storm. he marveled at her constitution, and sat even straighter, holding his chin high just as she'd always encouraged. he could be strong, too.

"and what if i don't want to marry?" he asked, flushing slightly at how petulant his words sounded. he did not mean to sound like a child, but sometimes it remained in his nature.

his mother's lips quirked, her blue eyes narrowing as if to study him: the same expression laurent wore when solving a puzzle.

"you may not have to. your uncle is unmarried, a second son, too. he never needed to. but there is much to be gained in marriage. love, children. and if vere finds itself in need of an alliance once more, you must be willing to give your brother that gift: to marry for the security of our family, of our country. but my hope is that his reign remains peaceful, and that you might not be used that way. i would see both of my sons happy, and with agency."

such frankness sat heavily on laurent's shoulders. he had suspected as much, that he might be given away like a pawn in a chess game, but to hear it from his mother's lips felt like a death sentence somehow. "and..." his courage faltered, and his fingers instinctively found the edge of the bracelet once more, toying with the delicate filigree clasp. "what if i wanted to marry a prince?" he could make out the quirk of his mother's brow out of the corner of his eye.

"if you marry a prince, you will have no heirs."

"auguste will have heirs. and i have nothing for a child to inherit. acquitart. childebert's diadem. a thousand books." he said it rather stubbornly, a child himself with few toys to share. "i could name a successor. if auguste has second or third sons, they could be my heirs."

his mother's hand came to lay over his, stilling the way it fiddled with the jewels. "when the time comes for you to marry, we will decide then to whom it will be. a princess or a prince, a stranger or a lover. but i will do all in my power to ensure that your marriage is a happy one. and auguste will, too. but first, you must go to bed, my love. and dream of all the princes and princesses from all corners of the world, the great hall full of suitors, drawn here by stories of your beauty and kindness and cleverness. they will start to come sooner than you think."

 

—————

 

THE morning of the wedding was bright with a gentle breeze, the sun shining its hardest through the lingering clouds, burning away patches as servants pulled back the great brocade drapes on laurent's bed.

despite all his reservations, he found himself thrumming with excitement, absorbing the energy that was palpable even in his chambers: breakfast being laid out upon a marble table, a bath being drawn, the seamstress' assistant bringing in his clothes for the day. they were brand-new, exceptionally fine, cream linen and gold silk, a doublet of pale blue taffeta and boots polished to a mirror shine. his crown, too: a lesser, simpler piece of hardware than his brother and mother wore, but it was the oldest among all the veretian tiaras and had all the ancient diamonds and gold that his slight head could hold up for hours on end. it was the first crown forged for a prince of vere, and was passed down to every second son. his servants pinned it neatly in place once his hair had been washed and brushed dry, and he found himself taken with his own reflection in the ornate mirror beside his armoire. he had worn the ancient crown not long ago at auguste's ascension, but had also grown an inch in the summer, and it sat more naturally on his head.

"you look smart, your highness," mused jord as laurent finally exited his chambers, looking haughty.

he caught jord's impish smile and frowned. "thank you. i see you've had the good sense to shave." jord's big, rough fingers leapt straight to his smooth chin, and he hummed: "i figured i could do the king one courtesy," and both shook their heads at one another's stubborn humor, and both set off down the corridor, laurent's long, purposeful strides still dwarfed by jord's rather meandering walk. he thought ruefully that he always felt tall until he was in the company of men, and that all the men around him seemed to be especially overgrown. even auguste, who he remembered fuzzily as being a slender twenty-year-old, had broadened and thickened until he erred on the fit edge of stocky. all these men, who fought with their impossibly heavy swords like they were twigs, all had the bodies of warriors, while laurent was a human bookmark.

servants had doubtless been up through the night, as the palace was more splendid even than it had been in the week of celebrations leading up to the day. bouquets of fragrant lilies the size of laurent himself flanked every arched doorway and window, their vases depicting scenes of beauty and battle in the highly ornate veretian style. there were glimpses of kempt, too: the rich violet of the kemptian royal family appeared in banners and draperies, and his mother, he saw, wore an exquisite gown of cream, gold, and dusty lavender, an honor to the marriage of her two countries. her crown, though, was purely veretian, a towering waterfall of diamonds that exploded when the sunlight hit it.

walking through the throngs in the great hall, laurent caught glimpses of the finest dress of other foreign dignitaries. there were the kemptians, of course, in their dark colors, rich emerald greens and garnets and the king and queen in deep violet that might have read as black in poor light; the vaskians in intricately tooled leather and shimmering silks; patrans in tunics and jackets that might have seemed simple if not for the exact cut and tailoring and the quality of the wool, light and soft as air; and the achelons, ornate in a way altogether different from the rest, exposed knees, gilded sandals, spotless white chitons and capes in all the most expensive colors, secured with glittering pins and broaches. he could make out the top of the achelon prince's head, with his undulating, pillowy curls no longer soaked with sweat, and the glint of his gold laurel crown, but it was not until he caught a glimpse of his dimple that laurent flushed and turned his focus to walking up the steps to the dais: an important task, given that the marble floor had been draped in navy blue velvet, and slipping was easy.

laurent stood beside his uncle, who would officiate in place of his father, which felt like blaspheming, as he cut a hollow imitation, but was so richly dressed that laurent imagined he must have been uncomfortable. "are you quite warm, uncle?" he whispered, curious, but a cold look silenced him and quelled his fidgeting, too. the sound of music filled the hall and had the same effect on the rest of the guests: there was a great rumbling as all turned, and auguste and liesel entered, hand in hand.

they were resplendent. both could have been carved in ivory, statuesque and broad, both faces as handsome as they were beautiful. her big eyes were the color of a forest floor and her hair fell around her shoulders in a blanket of shining waves, so dark it was nearly black. laurent felt his heart take up residence in his throat, and although he was likely not the only one to have such a visceral reaction to the couple's beauty, he would not have known: in his mind, it was only the three of them in the great room. little laurent, his brother, and his new sister.

their vows were succinct in the kemptian fashion, promises to protect country and family, promises of honor and equity. they were romantic in their own way, laurent thought, remembering the pragmatic way his mother spoke of marriage. surely, even a marriage to a stranger might not be so bad, if there were promises to be just and true to one another. and when it came time, his uncle extended his great hand, palm up, for the rings, which laurent fished from the breast pocket of his jacket. they were warm where they'd been pressed to his heart, but nothing compared to the heat of his uncle's fingers when he grasped laurent's hand, meeting his eyes and offering him a beneficent, approving smile. it was a shard of affection offered in front of the most powerful people in the world, and laurent felt his cheeks go pink, overwhelmed by his own role in such a monumental moment.

and then it was over. sudden, almost in an instant, where auguste clasped his hands to liesel's sculpted cheeks and drew her in for a kiss that said, without a doubt, that there was real love between them, and then her lips were on laurent's cheek, still wet from the rigor of auguste's kiss, and down the aisle walked the king and his bride. laurent was left on the dais and felt with a small shiver his uncle's damp, warm hand splay possessively over the back of his neck. "what an excellent groomsman you were," he heard his uncle say, but it was secondary in laurent's attention. both he and the achelon prince had been watching the newlyweds retreat out of the hall, and when the prince turned back he was beaming, smiling square at laurent. it filled the hole that auguste's retreat had torn, buoying laurent's heart.

 

—————

 

THE meal was, as laurent imagined it might be, extravagant. veretian ladies in dresses that nipped their waists in and heaved their cleavage skywards, dripping in diamonds as if they were pets. pets, too, wearing less fine fabric, although less only in quantity, not in quality, and slaves with their plain blue tunics. a harp playing sweetly in the corner, and silver platters piled high with everything rich and sweet came in a never-ending stream from the kitchens. great crystal decanters fed golden goblets with every varietal of wine imaginable, including a cup for laurent, who took sips under his uncle's watchful eye. there was caviar of varying sizes and colors, some sweeter than salty and all with the sharp burst on the tongue that laurent so enjoyed; silver tureens hot with velouté of wild watercress; rabbit burnt with coriander and aromatics; duck dripping with syrup over green garlic custard; and servants walking to and fro with white truffles the size of a child's skull, shaving flakes on request. and after it all was the wedding cake, a towering confection layered with exquisitely piped recreations of every wildflower indigenous to both vere and kempt, made with rare vanilla from the far east and stuffed with glazed pears, apricots, quince, and figs, and a sweet wine that tasted like honeycomb.

auguste made a speech. more wine was had. then etienne made a speech. then giles led a song in honor of their new queen, and then olivér seemed to attempt to make up a poem. and after hennike and liesel had a few quiet, private words, auguste stood, and a handful of men stood with him.

laurent's uncle leaned in, serving laurent another helping of the cake as if it were a secret offering, pouring over it a bit of the honeycomb wine so that the sponge would soak it up. "now the consummation," explained, pointing with his strong chin at the lords who followed auguste and his bride out of the hall. "in their chambers, with witnesses. as it always is." he said it with a casual air, a matter-of-factness that, given the subject matter, made laurent feel sheepish. he did not need to imagine his brother fucking his new wife while six lords watched. he did not imagine auguste would enjoy it, and not liesel, either: thinking of her as his sister, the idea felt suddenly, deeply uncivilized. "and that leaves the rest of us with our freedom."

"will i have to do that?" laurent puzzled, pushing a lump of cake around with his silver fork. "i've only ever seen... pets, or slaves." fuck in front of other people, he did not feel the need to say. "not princes."

"you will. but by that time you'll be well versed in what to do. and no nephew of mine would get stage fright." he said it with a wink in his eye, even as laurent hiccuped in a sign that perhaps he had been over-served. laurent thought that no, surely, he would not consummate anything in front of anyone. the thought appalled him, completely.

"come, nephew. shall we retire? maybe we can read the story of the hen and the kittens again. i see no reason why you should not spend a little while longer as a child."

 

—————

 

LAURENT had not spent much time in his uncle's quarters, but they mirrored his own in many ways: the same vast hearth and sumptuous bed, the loggia that looked out over the tidy gardens, although the view from these rooms was different from his own, a slightly less grand courtyard than the one that laurent shared with his mother and brother. but he had sat at his uncle's feet before in front of the fire, as he did so now, his uncle reposed on a great velvet sofa. the well-worn and beautifully illustrated storybook that laurent cherished so much was unopened beside him.

"you are lucky you're a lovely boy, or you'd cut an ugly figure looking so forlorn," his uncle mused, and laurent felt fingers in his hair, but was too occupied staring into the fire to notice much. the room had an uncomfortable quality to it, but it was one that the hallways had shared: a swaying, a blurring at the edges, like the feeling of being below-deck on a ship, which was something laurent had only experienced once but had imprinted on him forever for how badly he heaved, overcome with nausea for two days after the short sail.

"i worry," he confessed, and found his voice sounded mottled and strange. "if i marry a stranger, like mother says i may, i would want to be—i would want to know what i was doing. what if i marry, and have to... consummate in front of the court, and i'm a foolish virgin with no virility and..." he tapered off, knowing acutely that he should feel some sort of shame but, somehow, the emotion did not manifest in the correct ways. he felt dreadfully heady.

"you will learn," said his uncle, and it was with the breath of a chuckle, laurent aware that the fingers were now stroking through his hair comfortingly. "you will have whoever you want, whenever you want. a prince takes whatever he likes, and the palace is abound with tutors who would be honored to teach you the craft."

"the craft?" laurent repeated, crinkling his nose, his gaze unfocusing, entranced by the flames in the hearth.

"lovemaking," his uncle said with a smile in his voice. "with men, only, until you take a wife." he said the word like it tasted bitter and foul coming out of his mouth. "but any man would be lucky to lay with such a pretty prince, and there is no reason you shouldn't become an accomplished lover. and if your wife one day bores you, or if you prefer a man's touch, you might take a pet, or a slave, or a soldier. would you like that?" he said it with the tone that he might have offered an afternoon ride or an evening spent up past his bedtime, cloying and angling. but it comforted laurent. this was advice he would not get from his mother, nor his brother. he nodded, because it felt like the right thing to do, and heard, rather than felt, his uncle's posture relax.

"come then, nephew. sit in my lap. you may yet still fit. are they feeding you something to make you grow so quickly?"

laurent smiled as he stood, unfurling his long limbs as if to show off his height, although it took him a moment to balance himself. his reflexes were not so acute. "i think i will be very tall," he said proudly, "like auguste." a shadow passed over his uncle's face: was it disapproval? but as soon as it had come it was gone, and in his best imitation of a little boy, laurent climbed into his uncle's lap.

he was overwhelmed with a warmth that he had long since forgotten, the feeling of being in his father's arms as a small child, or even in auguste's. he had learned to read on auguste's lap, remembered being hefted up onto his first pony by his father's strong hands, aleron picking his young son up like a sack of flour. his father and uncle sounded the same, smelled the same. he could, when he leaned into his uncle's chest and closed his eyes, pretend for a moment.

something like a purr generated in his uncle's chest, approval at the way laurent had relaxed, and laurent was not so shocked to feel a big, smooth hand on his cheek. he had never seen his uncle heft a sword or ride without gloves, and these were impossible to imagine as the hands of auguste or his father, both fighters with rough embraces.

"you haven't lost your beauty yet," he heard his uncle murmur, and this he could mistake for his father's voice—only his father had never used it with laurent. it was the voice he spoke to his queen with. it was the voice that auguste had spoken to liesel with. worshipful and dark. and then—

"i will teach you how to kiss, first."

"i know how to kiss," laurent protested feebly. he exchanged chaste kisses with his brother and mother constantly, and with all of his horses, too.

"this is different."

and suddenly, he could taste the honey wine and something else on his uncle's lips, drawn in by big hands to a kiss that was, yes, different. it was not chaste or quick or polite. it was slow and greedy. he twitched, feeling his skin press against the sharp shadow of stubble on his uncle's jaw, and felt a pressure on the apex of his chin: it was his uncle's thumb, he realized, and in his momentary lapse of registration, he allowed it to press his mouth open. he did not want to be stubborn, he thought. but he wished he had, because the sensation of his uncle's tongue licking slow into his mouth felt foul: slimy, too much saliva, it felt messy and no longer like affection or reverence but... he reared back, only slightly, and this was enough to jar his uncle, who withdrew, looking like he was gaining his composure. his dark eyes were heavy-lidded, and this expression laurent could not place, not assign to anyone he loved: he had never seen someone look this way before. something flickered in it, something too that laurent could not place but that sent a shard of fear through his heart, but he sat very still, held there by his uncle's hand on his face and one, he realized, that had captured his waist. he wondered if extracting himself would be impolite, disrespectful.

"perhaps one lovely kiss is enough for one evening," his uncle whispered, and laurent felt his cheeks grow warm at the intimacy of the words, his uncle's voice. was this how it was meant to feel? he would have liked to leave, or to not have done this at all. "we still have time," his uncle continued, big, soft fingers tracing an arc along laurent's cheekbone, "to practice. before you're old enough to practice with others."

 

————— JORD —————

 

THE prince emerged from his uncle's chambers, and jord stood straighter when he'd been leaning against a tapestried wall, chewing on his rough thumbnail, trying to eliminate a hangnail. "your highness," he grumbled, "to bed?" and when laurent nodded, jord went to set off, but five strides down the hall he could sense that the space beside him was empty, and he turned to look back.

laurent was paused, as if frozen in place, his hand still on the ornate egg knob of his uncle's door. he looked as if he were unsure which direction he should go in, and jord took a hesitant step back towards him. "your highness?" no response. "laurent?"

hearing his given name clearly jarred him back to reality, and laurent blinked, and walked slowly to jord's side. it was in his eyes and gait that jord could see the drunkenness, an easy state of being to recognize for any soldier. but it was not a suit he'd seen his prince wear, and it amused him as much as it concerned him. "steady?" he asked, reaching out a hand to help, and laurent took it without speaking. the prince did not, however, lean on jord's side or withdraw his hand after steadying, but seemed simply content to be led hand-in-hand down the corridors to his wing of the palace.

they might have painted a funny picture, a grown man in the armored livery of the veretian royal family and a slender, deeply overdressed boy wandering the dark halls, holding hands like a mother might hold her child's hand in a busy market for fear of losing them. there was something about laurent's manner that felt strange, but then, there were many things about his manner that felt strange: his occasional hiccup, his silence, the slow weave of his gait. he was not the happy, energetic drunk that jord had imagined he would be, bouncing off the walls and singing off-tune, an extension of the silliness that bubbled under his polished surface. instead, he was almost somber. but he was young, still, and had not become a practiced drinker. perhaps he would grow into it.

neither spoke until they were outside of laurent's chambers. there were guards already stationed there: jord, who had attended the wedding and feast, was sharp enough to accompany the prince around the castle, but could not stand for a night watch. "i will retire and see you in the morning, your highness," he said, perfunctory, completely devoid of the expectation of a reply.

but there it was, small as he'd ever heard the prince speak: "jord... who taught you how to kiss?"

it was the kind of question that he could not have been prepared for. who taught you how to fight, perhaps, or who taught you how to read. but jord reared his head back ever so slightly, chin doubling with surprise. "your highness?" was all he could manage.

laurent may have been drunk, but he was still sharp as a knife even after having imbibed, and his brow furrowed in a familiar way: it was how he looked at jord when jord said something stupid, a disappointed look that said he expected better from the captain of his guard. "who taught you how to kiss?" laurent said again, enunciating every word as if jord were slow.

"n-no one taught me, your highness. or... a great many farmer's daughters did. i suppose you could say i'm self-taught." he peered at laurent with a cocked brow, searching for that look of disapproval to fade: he did not want this to be the wrong answer, but it was the truth.

but the look on laurent's face did not fade into pleased acceptance or even acquiescence. it shifted inward, a deep frown that cut a line between his wheat-colored brows. this jord liked even less than the look of disapproval.

"is it..." laurent's voice dropped, although it was just the two of them and the posted sentries, all trustworthy men. "is it not something that fathers teach sons?"

jord felt a hard, strange shift in his brain, like a piece of a cliff had cracked off where no one had expected it to. "no," he said, as emphatic as he was confused. "a father might find a willing tutor, maybe."

to meet his eyes seemed like a struggle that laurent could barely endure, and when their gazes did meet, the blue eyes flickered away. shame: jord realized, his charge was oozing it from every pore, looking like he wanted to cave in on himself, to disappear in the grout of the checkered marble floor.

"so uncles also wouldn't give instruction." whether it was a question or a statement of understanding, jord could not know. he said nothing, because his mind was making great leaps, all of which he reared back from. how opaque was laurent being? or was he, as jord began to fear, not being opaque at all?

"please stay outside tonight," laurent said to the floor. "i don't want anyone to come in. not even family." this was as transparent as laurent would be, jord realized. he felt the rest of his mind shift and break off, and was left without footing as every stone of understanding hit him, and buried him.

 

—————

 

"THERE'S nothing to do," laurent said, and his tone was firm.

jord was incredulous. "there are many things to do. at the very least, keep me with you. everywhere."

the prince's bedchamber was one of the only places that they could hope for a speck of privacy in the palace, which is why jord had suggested they spend the afternoon there when the weather had turned sour. this deep into winter, bitter rains came often, and the great loggias were shuttered, and the palace lit from torches and hearths to keep everyone warm. it wasn't unusual for the royal family to travel south for the more miserable months, but the young queen had endured a difficult first few months of pregnancy, and so they would all stay put while she was on bedrest.

laurent cut into a pomegranate deftly. he had been getting significantly handier with a blade, his reflexes sharpening as he grew into a teenaged body. he was still not very strong, but he'd been a late bloomer, voice beginning to crack and change just in the past few weeks, and if auguste was any indicator, laurent would grow broad and strong soon enough.

"if i kept you everywhere," laurent said cooly, "don't you think that would perhaps raise suspicion? i should not have to have a guard with me when i am alone with family." this, jord knew, was a loaded statement, one to be tiptoed around. it was a flash of the raw anger that jord now saw with some regularity. laurent's temper had begun to explode at unpredictable intervals, and jord often wondered where laurent could possibly have been exposed to the kind of language he had now espoused. "if he suspects you know, i don't know what he might do." the prince's words came haltingly as he carved into the fruit in his hand, brilliant garnet juice dripping onto his fine black breeches and disappearing into the dark fabric. he stuck his delicate fingers into the center and fished out a handful of succulent seeds, dropping them into the silver dish on the little table between them: jord plucked a few and ate them.

"you know what we should do," jord sighed, resigned already to the verbal lashing that this insistence would earn him. but, to his surprise, he found laurent measured, defeated by his own frustration, sucking pomegranate juice off of his thumb and forefinger.

"i don't want him to know." the prince gazed up at the ceiling, and jord followed his eyes casually: the fresco above them was inky blue, dark and velvety, speckled with golden stars, each one inlaid with a diamond in its center that flickered in the torchlight. "he has enough to deal with right now. liesel has almost died twice in as many months, and the vaskian raids..." laurent heaved a great sigh, which was unbecoming on such a youthful figure, the sigh of an old, worn-down man.

there was a knock at the door, which jarred them both from looking up at the artificial night sky above them. jord could feel the newly swallowed seeds begin to rise in his throat, ruined with bile as the villain of their discussion walked in, jacket unlaced, casually dressed in a way that had jord reeling with cold nausea. laurent had stilled, knife clutched in his hand, white-knuckled.

"laurent. i thought you and i might have a talk." jord knew, since he was almost always there upon the man's initial approach, that he had stopped promising laurent a new book or a beguiling secret. somewhere along the way, he had not had to coax or flatter his nephew. laurent had been broken like a gentle colt, a creature too delicate to do the brutal work that it was now submissive to. it was uncanny, the way the prince could simply turn himself to stone in front of jord's very eyes, accepting his fate.

"you may go," the prince said flatly, and jord looked back at him imploringly, desperately. keep me with you, everywhere, he wanted to beg, but laurent was numb already, and jord felt a lick of fire engulf his heart. laurent asked too much of him when he asked him to stand outside his chamber door and listen, through the cracks, to every vile word and pained, false moan.

if he could not protect the prince here, he would do it in the king's chambers instead. auguste would have to swallow this horror as jord had: he could not be the only one to feel this impenetrable rage, and he would not feel neutered any longer. he stood, and with all the strength in his being, forced himself to leave laurent and his uncle alone one last time.

 

—————

 

AUGUSTE sat, straight-backed despite the hour, his broad shoulders cloaked in plain black wool, devoid of the signature ermine trim of a member of the royal family. the cell block was empty: all the prisoners in the keep at arles had been condensed to another block, so that the only sounds in this row of the jail were the drip, drips of various leaks that had been sprung during the storm that afternoon. the night sky was clear, moonless, black, but everything in the city felt damp and frigid.

someone had dragged an old wooden table and set of chairs into one of the cells a week ago, and had since been occupied regularly well after midnight, but not by prisoners. the gang had been small, always: jord and auguste and auguste's man, olivér, and more recently, holbert, a wily kitchen boy who was known for being quick and handy with a knife. he had been brought on when perhaps knives were still in play, but they had, as a quorum, moved away from that plan of action.

"poison's cleaner," said jord, but the look of distaste on olivér's face was enough to have him raising both of his hands in retreat.

"there's no honor in poisoning," olivér sniffed. auguste was quick enough to stymie that train of thought before jord had to.

"honor has no place here," he growled with a force to quiet any man. his temper had shown itself more in these past few weeks, jord thought, than it ever had before. he'd seen the king in the thick of combat and training, seen him at what might have been a man's most base, but this was an entirely different kind of anger. auguste had swiveled his icy gaze at his guardsman, and he seemed to vibrate in the dark, dank cell, pallid skin and jaundiced hair. he was not beautiful down here, mired in fury. he was terrible. "were you the wrong man for the job? had i known you didn't have the stomach, i would have turned you off entirely. i won't have a man fight for me who wouldn't fight for my family. with whatever it takes."

olivér nodded, furtive, having been put squarely in his place. his adam's apple bobbed hard in the shadows, thinking before he contributed, choosing his words wisely. "cantarella over time, in small doses, would kill him over a week. looks just like cholera," he suggested, which seemed to quell auguste's anger: his golden brows rose.

"hemlock would take a half-hour," jord countered, but knew olivér's response before it left his mouth and said it for him: "but it would be obvious. maybe. i've seen men drop dead after a big meal. heart just gives out sometimes with the soft ones."

"antimony could look like poison oak," piped up holbert, "we could dose him on a hunt, make it look like he'd walked through the wrong bush."

"i still think we get him down to the brothels in the lower town. we... know what he likes," jord said, hesitating a bit before he committed to speaking them aloud in front of auguste. the king clearly bristled, but the truth of it all hung above their heads constantly, like it was written into the mildew on the stone ceiling. they were here for laurent. and auguste had not yet snapped at jord in their days of planning, but kept him close and rallied ideas off of him well after their coconspirators had been dismissed.

it had been jord, after all, who had betrayed laurent's confidence, who had approached auguste after leaving laurent's chambers, vomit on his tongue at his prince's hollow-eyed expression of dismissal, resigned to another rough fucking that left him cruel and reclusive for days, unable to ride, too miserable to eat. he had gone to the king that night, unable to watch it happen again. turn me out or ask your brother, he'd said, but i can't protect him when the threat is on the other side of that door.

"i admit, it would rouse the least suspicion if he washes up in the seraine in a month with a knife in his gut. mugged and thrown in the river." as if he were the one doing it himself, auguste had drawn a dagger from his hip and now dug it into the soft wood of the old table. he was carving, crudely, a starburst, jord saw. it was the same compulsion that laurent had begun to show, cutting into things when he felt stymied. he wondered if it was learned or part of their bloodline, like blonde hair and cold eyes. "what i hate is that all of these outcomes leave us with a body."

the silence was dense. they all knew what was unspoken: that they had gathered here to plan an assassination because auguste had rejected, outright and furiously, the notion of anything official. even framing his uncle, he said, would leave too much potential for laurent to be exposed. he would not, could not leave the door open for his uncle to hurl accusations or cry foul play. he would not give the man a trial. but it meant the sacrifice of then giving him a proper burial, his uncle lying interred in the family crypt, the one place he did not deserve to be. even now, it was clear that the decision tore auguste in half.

jord watched the young king willing himself to breathe deeply. they were the same age, really, maybe a year or two between them, but auguste always seemed a century older, until jord had begun to see the cracks, the emotion that roiled underneath his cool, just surface. all because of laurent.

"it can't wait. every night we toil..." auguste's lip curled. "cantarella," he said with resigned finality, turning his gaze squarely to holbert. "slowly. olivér says a week? make it three, and i'll make you the lord of lys. i want him bedridden, and suffering every moment. begin tomorrow. you two—" he gestured at jord and olivér with the tip of his knife, "—get it for him, and be quiet about it. and when you've delivered it, you take turns on watch, and until he's dead you never, ever let laurent out of your sight."

 

SEVEN YEARS LATER.


————— LAURENT —————

 

SHE was the hottest filly he could remember ever having. of course, mares had plenty of blood, and were smarter than stallions, who caused chaos with strength alone: a mare was more intuitive, would learn her master's weaknesses and take advantage of them. and red mares were the worst, notorious so that when she came off the wagon as a seven-day-old with her mother, the horsemaster joked that laurent would not live to see nineteen if he decided to break her. he had been keen in his suspicion, because although laurent did live to see two birthdays come and go, he had had more violent falls in the three months he'd spent breaking her than he had in his entire life of riding. the men in the yard had stopped laughing, but only because the amusement simply wore out after the twentieth time.

after the sixtieth, with his high arched brows furrowed, he swept the red dirt off of his ass. it was too hot for riding leathers, and even in thin breeches and a light shirt he was sweating. he took solace in the fact that she was, too, nostrils flared, foam forming on her neck and shoulders. and although all his stubbornness and anger made him want to grab her by the reins and give her mouth a hard yank, he was gentle when he extended his hand for her to smell, his other hand tucking his whip into the back waist of his trousers, hiding it from her. "i know that you are a willful little bitch," laurent said in a soft voice, nearly singsong in its quality, although any human might have picked up the traces of a forced smile, the lilting threat underneath his words. he had learned that there were better ways to express his rage than simple physical violence. "but i am a willful little bitch, too. and that is why some day, you will decide that i am your friend, your best friend, and not your enemy. because a lesser willed man might beat you. i will not beat you. but i will not stop sitting on you, and you will not win. even when you yield to me, it'll mean i'll just be sitting on you more. so you might as well learn to enjoy it. when you let me sit on you, i'll let you run. and that's how we'll become friends."

and then he took the reins, and before she could scoot from under him, he hooked his boot in the stirrup and swung himself into the saddle. every time she darted or shied, he sat heavy in the saddle, heels down, hands steady and firm. he would not, he decided, fall again that day.

he rode her until exhaustion dulled her fire, until she let her neck hang low long, her whiskers nearly touching the ground, and then he rode for an hour more to show her that, when pliant and kind, it could be an enjoyable experience, and afterwards he even let her eat some wild grasses through her bit, taking the long path from the round pen back to the stables.

chastillon was where all the young ones were brought for breaking, for while the stables at arles were well-equipped for the mounts of the guards and the royal family, it was no training facility. here, there were stalls for four hundred horses, vast paddocks and fields bordered with tight, tall hedges and neat stone walls, room for mares and foals and herds of yearlings, and a field for the old ones, beloved creatures that had gone a bit lame or stiff: beatrix, laurent's first pony, still plodded through the knee-high swaths of marguerites and lavender, no longer a riding pony but a pet.

it was where the hunt was, too, meetings of vast shady forests and pristine golden meadows and sparkling offshoots of the seraine, places where deer and boar and foxes multiplied. and although laurent had spent the summer with the horses in the country, he would soon have company. early fall meant auguste's birthday, and the king would have a hunt with his closest companions and allies before the celebration in arles. lords couderic and sardou of delfeur and chasteigne were to attend the hunt, and the queen's brother prince kristof, and kyros of mellos, but most importantly, it would be prince bautizar's first hunt. laurent's nephew was newly seven, and would not ride out with them, but it would be his first exposure to the thrill and pomp of it all. laurent had been seven, too, on his first hunt, while auguste had been twenty: save perhaps for bautizar's hazel eyes, it might simply have been history repeating itself.

auguste and his guard had dismounted in the yard by the time laurent and his defeated chestnut filly returned, the sweat on both of them dried during their gentle walk back. but auguste's smile when he saw his brother was knowing, and he gave a cheer that defied his rigid black leathers and subdued manner. here, in the stable yard, he was a jibing big brother again.

"you have felled the dragon!" auguste whooped, beaming, and laurent felt himself glow, and basked cheekily in the awe of the men in the yard. he turned his face to the sun and spread a single arm out wide—he dared not let the reins go entirely, even with his mount in her exhausted state—soaking up the praise in a show of elegant braggadocio.

"she has an unlimited supply of rudeness, but not energy," he admitted: he had done nothing but tire her out to win her obedience, but still it felt satisfying. even if he had dust stuck to his back where he'd fallen off, she had clearly allowed him to win this round.

"no wonder you get along so well." it was a barb that didn't stick, as none of them did, just brothers exchanging nips like the yearlings in the pasture. when auguste took laurent's reins, it was a sign of deference, of service: a king doing the job of a stable boy.

laurent did not linger with his brother, who took leave to bathe and dress for lunch. instead, he tended to the filly: brushing the sweat marks from her short coat until she shone again, packing poultice on her legs, checking her feet for stones. he labored over her, the kind of work that was beneath even the horsemaster, relegated to stable boys, but without doing it himself he could not know her, and so he completed each task with great observation and care.

he was in the yard, standing on an overturned wooden bucket, using a dull knife's edge to pull and trim her mane while she ate her lunch from a bag when auguste reemerged, his hair slick and shining gold, his riding leathers replaced with a midnight blue jacket, laced high and tight against his thick throat. age and fatherhood had dusted his handsome face with the faintest beginnings of lines, but they only served to make him look nobler and more masculine, and the crinkles in the corners of his eyes when he smiled filled laurent's heart with warmth.

"she's going to be the fastest one we've got. not for this race, but maybe the next," laurent said, while auguste approached and gave her an appreciative pat on her fat white blaze. her eyes hung heavy as she munched, now a placid lady after a hard workout and a royal pampering.

"i knew that she would be special when she hit the ground. but that it would take natural feel, a still seat and a soft hand. any man can sit on a kick ride. you ride the bloody ones better than anyone." the praise was high, and laurent shifted his attention from the half-pulled mane to auguste, and they shared a small, private smile.

it did not last more than a hanging moment: there was commotion at the open gate, and an octet of riders trotted through on snorting mounts. the horses' leather breastplates all wore a common gilded seal square in the center, a proud lion, and the same mark pinned each rider's bright red cloak in place. auguste's smile went from intimate and brotherly to one slightly more polished, enhanced for show: laurent could tell the minute differences in that face, and followed his eyes.

he could deduce who the kyros of mellos was. four of the eight men were dressed as soldiers, a royal guard, while two were soldiers of a different household, their armor fine but not as grand as the other four. that left two men of obvious nobility—although achelon nobility often dressed so simply and with so much exposed skin that it took a keen eye to differentiate classes based on attire alone. there was one thing that could give away a man of noble birth, however, to even the most common eyes: a crown. and of the two remaining men, only one wore the gold laurel of the royal family of achelos. with a start, laurent realized he recognized the face below it.

it was so casual that a stranger may have found it hard to believe, the meeting of two royal families in a stable yard. auguste strode forward with all the wide open arms of a gracious host, and the men began to dismount, sandals hitting the neatly raked dirt in a chorus. laurent pocketed his knife and left his filly to eat with a pat to her neck, confident she would stand still given her exhaustion and her focus on her meal, and he stepped down from his bucket to follow, quite literally, in his brother's footsteps.

the big black stallion that the achelon prince had rode in on was huffing, ears forward, a curious creature, and laurent was charmed by his bright eye, reached out a hand to cup his muzzle. the speech around him was a mix of veretian and achelon, and he found himself beguiled by the languages, vaguely eavesdropping on the conversation between auguste and the achelon prince. he did not think to speak, and perhaps auguste had forgotten an introduction, or simply thought there would be mutual recognition between all nobility, but after a minute of chat about the journey from the port at arles, auguste invited their guests inside. "we'll take lunch in an hour in the west garden," he announced warmly, with a look at laurent to make sure that he knew that he, too, was expected to be clean and present by then. and with a middling, playful sort of bow, he turned to leave the yard, passed by two servants ready to escort the guests to their chambers.

and then, at precisely the wrong time, the moment before auguste crossed the line from in to out of earshot, came the muttering in achelon: "do you think they only hire the dull, pretty ones as stable boys here?"

it was the kyros, a man less handsome but taller than the prince, and the look they shared was equal parts unimpressed and unsurprised. then, their brown gazes fell on laurent, and with a jolt he realized: he was the dull, pretty one. he felt a shard of cold anger jumpstart his heart, but it was nothing compared to the fury he felt when the prince nodded at him with a kindly, sympathetic expression. "he needs to be tended," he said in slightly accented veretian, although his grasp on the language was excellent enough that laurent could register the insult: he spoke slowly, not because he was a slow translator, but because he thought laurent stupid. "go on." and, with a dimpled grin over his shoulder at the kyros, in achelon: "maybe he tumbles better than he untacks."

his heart lept high at the insult, but like a ball being hit with a stick, it careened off at a jackrabbit pace when he heard the sound: a sword being unsheathed halfway. he didn't need to see who had begun to draw and couldn't, even if he'd wanted to. his hand was frozen on the black horse's muzzle, his eyes, wide and horrified, stuck to the insolent look on the achelon prince's face. damianos. it was a stupid name that felt clumsy and foolish to say. fitting.

"you would do well to show a little more respect when speaking to my brother." auguste spat, his voice projecting through the quiet of the yard, his hand on the hilt of his sword. it was just barely drawn, but a sincere warning all the same.

laurent stood very still, and remained quiet. he had not felt moved to speak since the arrival of their guests and felt less so now, when auguste could speak for both of them, and when any remaining doubts of their intentions could be cast aside by their matching expressions: withering, although auguste's radiated fury and laurent's, disgust.

the shift in damianos' face, however, and the face of the kyros, and the faces of his men, was as if they'd removed masks, all eight of them switching from easy smiles to looks of increasingly abject horror. and it was the prince's face that was the worst off: even under his brown skin he was visibly growing redder and redder by the second. "your brother," he breathed, disbelief in every syllable, as if he dreaded confirmation of laurent's identity. laurent registered figures in his peripheral vision, the horsemaster and the actual stable boys poised at the edge of the yard, ready to take the horses until everyone had come to a standstill.

and finally, laurent felt moved to speak. with his chin high, he still had to look up at the achelon prince, but he could do so with blistering pride, eyes narrow and nose in the air: "well," he snipped, "yours wouldn't be the first tongue he's cut out for talking about me that way."

 

—————

 

DAMIANOS' penitence was, appropriately, ceaseless. he had taken a knee immediately, there in the dirt of the yard, his wide-eyed glance darting from auguste to laurent, imploring. it was an act of contrition that laurent had not anticipated, a prince kneeling to a king in anything other than surrender, but neither brother let their cold fury shift. laurent had simply given the great black horse a long stroke on the nose and turned to the horsemaster, and in a clear voice had said "you'll take the filly back to her stall before attending to our guests. and finish her mane." auguste had resheathed his sword, and through damianos' stumbled apology, laurent had simply spoken over him. "patience is a virtue in vere," he said calmly, his face now trained into a cool look, casting a glance at damianos, who was standing now and dusting off his knee. "chivalry, too. i so look forward to sharing more of our customs with you." and out of the yard he walked, stride in stride with auguste, feeling his brother's hand, firm and protective on his shoulder.

"it was an understandable mistake," auguste admitted along the walk to laurent's chambers, and both sets of shoulders relaxed. laurent looked down at himself: his white shirt collar wide open, laces akimbo, red clay smeared over his side from his fall, one suspender hanging off of his shoulder. only his boots, well-polished, looked remotely princely. he could admit that perhaps auguste had a point, but not aloud.

"he and i have met before," he said cooly, "in arles. before your wedding. don't you remember? he ran into me in the practice yard, knocked me over. books flying everywhere."

auguste's eyes narrowed in jolly suspicion. "i don't recall books flying."

"he was graceless then as he is now. and who could look at us both and not make instant sense of it? no matter what i'm wearing."

they stilled in front of laurent's chambers, and auguste wheeled him around by the shoulder so that they were as close to eye to eye as possible—laurent had finally accepted that he would grow no further, and would always lack an inch or two on his brother in height. "he will apologize," auguste reassured, "profusely, formally. and truly, if i know him, and you know i am a good judge of character, he will apologize informally until you offer him a scrap of a smile, because he is a man hungrier for friendliness than any i have ever met. he does not know that he has stepped on a viper."

laurent narrowed his eyes, although moments later he would chide himself for it, knowing it made his appearance more serpentine. "i resent the comparison," he sniffed, but auguste simply smiled, clapped his hand to laurent's cheek, plopped a jolly kiss on his forehead, and left him standing in the hallway.

"who wronged you?"

it was jord, leaning casually against the ornately carved doorframe: he had been standing there the whole time, but laurent only now wholly registered his presence. "the prince of achelos mistook me for a common stable boy, and spoke to me as such," laurent said dryly, knowing that this would tickle jord. he was right, and watched his captain barely contain a simper, opening the door for him and waiting for laurent to enter.

"is that so much worse than the time the old patran king mistook you for a pet and made sardou an offer for you?" jord proffered, and laurent knew the man had been too long in service to their family when he returned laurent's withering glare with an even cheekier, lopsided grin.

 

—————

 

LAURENT bathed for lunch, since he intended on dedicating the afternoon to his studies. aristokles, the famed aeginian historian, had been hired to tutor laurent for the year, and the readings and drilling were as mentally rigorous as the riding was physically. he selected his clothes particularly: although he usually might have spent his sessions with aristokles as casually dressed as he had been riding, he had for now a very firm point to make, and he snipped at his servant to lace his dark green jacket tighter, smoothing a stray lock of his hair behind his ear and giving himself a cooly unpleasant look in the looking glass. he would not be mistaken for anyone other than himself.

the halls of chastillon sparkled in the noontime sun. every window was thrown open, every heavy brocade curtain tied back with silk rope, tassels objecting lightly to the breeze that sometimes carried in the scent of jasmine and eucalyptus from the landscaped courtyards. the hunting lodge had become laurent's home for time being: his trunks had been long unpacked, and he had taken over not just his own chambers but the whole castle, really. the library at arles had been half packed and brought to chastillon, and when the study there had begun to feel cramped, laurent and aristokles had overflowed into the great meeting room, where at a long table wars and decrees might have been strategized: it was now a room piled high with books, a harp in the corner, several cushioned sofas brought in for lounging and reading, the long wooden table covered in parchments and inks and, often, a fat, long-haired grey kitchen cat, who responded to no name but groomed itself in the slots of sunshine in the afternoons.

the hallways, then, felt more his than anyone else's. he knew the servant's names, knew their schedules and routines. he moved through the halls alone, most often, or with jord, or with aristokles, or the horsemaster, who always seemed out of place and uncomfortable inside the castle walls but who laurent often called in to walk and talk with him. this time, it was three of them abreast, jord walking noisily beside laurent with his sword belt shifting, and old, slow aristokles, who grumbled about having to walk to lunch, rather than having it brought to them in the makeshift library.

"you are so quick to disrespect the presence of a king," laurent quipped, although he knew full well that his old tutor gave any man only the minimal amount of respect required. he was a bit of a misanthrope, which was one of the reasons laurent delighted in bringing him to a full lunch gathering.

"i wouldn't disrespect his presence. i just wouldn't be in it at all," aristokles retorted, stubbornly, always, in achelon. although he would sometimes test laurent's grasp on any number of other languages.

"you would be a miserable son of a bitch and live in a cave aeginia if i didn't pay you to live in a veretian palace." laurent proudly answered in his tutor's native language. it made the small crowd in front of him turn: in the open-air vestibule that led to the garden, the achelon prince stood with his kyros and a guard, and laurent was happy to see he looked thoroughly sheepish still, and deeply moreso upon hearing laurent speaking achelon, walking towards him with a mean-looking captain of the prince's guard and a revered achelon elder.

"we only hire the smart, ugly ones here," laurent tossed out in achelon, gesturing breezily to his grouchy tutor and smiling graciously at the cluster of guests. and with his motley companions, he went to stride past the group out to the gardens, that had been set for lunch with settees and low tables. he did not have to wait for his brother's arrival to sit down like the rest of the guests.

but jord stopped in the archway and turned, frowning at something behind laurent, giving a jerk of his chin to beckon laurent look as well. the achelon prince was standing behind him, looking very specifically like a man who had been caught snooping through a snake's nest by a venomous mother. "i didn't get a chance, in the yard, to offer an articulate apology," he began in veretian. "it was thoughtless for me not to have recognized you. i remember meeting you, in arles, at your brother's wedding, of course. it's just... of course you've changed quite a bit. your brother had said you were bookish, then, and you were a child, of course, and..."

laurent knew his look was withering. it was a particular bored gaze, one brow raised, that generally infuriated anyone who was trying to appeal to him in the moment. but damianos looked thoroughly submissive.

"of course," laurent parroted, a hint of condescension in his tone. it was owed, he thought. he could sense jord standing a little straighter beside him: with his chin up, laurent's captain was the same height as the achelon prince. he was a wonderful second, even when there was no fight to be had. not the noblest of soldiers, but the scrappiest by far, and deadly with a dagger, a skill he'd leant laurent.

"if i were a petty man," laurent began, "i would stand here and wonder aloud why you insinuate that i couldn't be bookish now, whether perhaps you mean my looks disqualify me? or," he held a slender index finger in the air, as if he'd had quite a good idea. "maybe you were simply moved by my committed horsemanship," he conjured up his most innocent, imploring face, knitted brows and parted lips, "and thought, 'how could the genius prince of vere have enough sheer hours in the day to dedicate himself to so many pursuits? how could he be so multifaceted, so wonderfully well-rounded?'" he let the nastiness of his tone hang in the silence for a moment, lording one more second of power before he folded, his manner going conspiratorial in an instant. "let's say all of the above. and now you are corrected and see that i have defied all of your narrow-minded expectations of what the veretian second son has amounted to."

he was caustic, and haughty, and when he glanced at jord he saw the same arrogant air emanating from his captain. jord was the soldier, better with his fists and a sword than laurent, but the venom that came so naturally to laurent was not a skill easily learned. and yet he had given damianos a neat conclusion to their rift, and it didn't seem like the achelon was offended at all by such a dressing-down. indeed, he heaved a great sigh, his broad chest rising and falling, and his handsome face relaxed from dire concern to something deeply peaceful. he was grateful, laurent saw, and so he returned damianos' small smile with one of his own, a peace treaty.

auguste had rounded the corner, his hair now dry in smooth golden waves, doublet dark against his fair skin. laurent met his brother's eyes over the achelon's shoulder and the exchanged just a blink. it was often all they needed to communicate. the tension had been dispersed, and when auguste clapped damianos on the shoulder, it was with the clear affection of a man who had forgiven all.

 

—————

 

ARISTOKLES was an incorrigible gossip, but only when tricked into it. laurent had learned to manipulate his old tutor. he could not ask aristokles to openly disparage his country, or his countrymen. nothing could ever be posed as veretian versus achelon, or indeed anything at all versus achelon, because he was a nationalistic old bull. but he had barely spoken at lunch, despite being surrounded by his fellow achelons, and laurent suspected he might have had something to say about their company. he'd waited until they retired to the makeshift library together, jord off to the armory with auguste's captain, leaving the prince and his tutor alone.

"so," laurent opened, looking keenly up from the enormous tome open in front of him. it was an epic poem in artesian, and he was painstakingly translating it for the third time. they had begun the process a month ago, and aristokles had thrown the first two versions into the fire. "tell me about the kyros of mellos." he put on his best disguise: an expression of sweet, simple curiosity, as if he were simply showing fascination with his tutor's culture.

"nikandros," aristokles answered in achelon, "the prince's favorite." he was close to dozing off under a light wool blanket. the afternoon was warm, and laurent might not have blamed him if it weren't for this new, needling curiosity that had the back of his neck feeling curious.

"achelon princes have favorites?" mildly stubborn, he replied in veretian. when both men were tired, they often spoke like this, half in one language, half in another.

"a best friend, then. a brother. not the kind of favorite you're thinking of," the old man sniffed. while laurent swirled the silver pot of ink in front of him, he listened to aristokles differentiate: that the words meant different things, that the translation was this, that, and the other, and companion and favorite meant altogether different things than lover or conspirator in achelon, and that veretian was a morally bankrupt language if all four words could be rolled into the same one. laurent didn't disagree, but he grew irritable at the tirade. he had not been looking for a language lesson, nor one in morality.

"and tell me about the prince." he reverted course, waving off aristokles' lecture. "what is he like?"

"what is he like? if you mean what lies inside his mind, i cannot tell you. he has commanded the achelon army for eight years. more beloved than theomedes was at his age. but like a pup is less fearsome than a wolf, one suspects damianos will lose his affability in time."

laurent shifted in his seat. his posture had been slowly deteriorating all afternoon and was now in such a state that his mother might have smacked him upside the head, and when he slumped further with his chin resting on the heel of his palm, he looked every bit the bored, tired prince he was. "he'll become cruel?" he mused. "he seems... soft. eager to please. it's hard to imagine him as a commander of armies."

the silence between them hung low and long. it was only after a minute or two that laurent realized his tutor had nodded off, the old man's breathing deep, just shy of a snore. and so he let himself doze, too, and daydreams turn to true dreams.

 

—————

 

TWO days later, it was not the chestnut filly that laurent rode for the hunt. she was too young and unpredictable: he would likely be thrown hard enough to die if he tried it. his choice was, as always, his beloved méduse. perhaps the little red one would be faster than méduse one day, but for now there was no quicker mount, no horse more well-suited for the hunt. long and lean and a bay that shone like polished wood and four white stockings, she was always careful and quick, game and brave. there was no river she wouldn't ford, no log or hedge or wall she couldn't clear, full of scope and courage. auguste had broken her as a filly, a gift for laurent's sixteenth birthday.

he had swung into the saddle early that morning, the first man mounted. she was by no means old, but sometimes came out stiff, and so he let her trot in long, large loops around the stables. he took her to the gate of the castle, which was now the site of a great deal of ruckus: servants and laborers erecting the beginnings of a dais and the end of the markers for the race course. he would not ride méduse in the tournament, either, to save her legs. a hunt and a race in two consecutive days was too much on a horse already tender-tendoned.

by the time he returned to the stables, the men were mounting. auguste on his young dappled stallion, his mane and tail still black with youth; damianos on the dense black horse he'd ridden in on, who looked to be rather cold blooded and suited more for a leisurely jaunt than the speed a hunt required. but it didn't matter: auguste and damianos rode side-by-side, and laurent was reminded cooly of being a boy, watching them tease each other after an exhibition fight. jord was by his side immediately, and that was the arrangement he felt most comfortable with, anyway. he would not pine to be a third wheel. jord was all the companionship he needed, laurent's shadow when he kicked méduse into a canter, leading the way down the wooded road to the camp.

 

—————

 

BAYING chaotically, the hounds did their jobs with simple professionalism. a good hunter would watch them and their path, to better choose the one he might take through the unpredictable underbrush. a better hunter would have a horse who did the same, who knew her job. laurent and méduse were the latter. if she skipped a root, he sat tall for it, and if the hounds scrabbled at a stone wall, she would clear it without a second look, laurent neatly out of the saddle to let her jump round. here, in the thick of it, there were only two men leading the charge. auguste had to give his youngster more guidance and a heavier hand, but the stallion was ripe with energy, thrashing his head when they hit flat ground, begging to be let loose.

a hound zig-zagged out of the brush to laurent's right, and méduse spooked forward, giving laurent the uncanny feeling that she was slipping out from beneath him, but with his seat deep and his heels dug down, the bolt became sheer momentum. there was a blood-curling scream ten paces ahead: the boar's feet had slipped from beneath itself on a patch of damp leaves, and it had clearly injured itself in the fall, struggling to right itself and seething with pain.

"OY," august bellowed at the circling hounds, "FUCK OFF!" but he and laurent pulled up and circled, too, wary of the wet patch, unwilling to nudge their horses closer. but the massive boar was struggling well now, its hooves scrabbling for purchase and finding it. in a moment, it would come at one of them if it could, and they would be lucky if it impaled a dog and not one of their horses.

laurent blinked through the sweat that coated his brow and fell, in stubborn, stinging droplets, into his eyes. looking to auguste for direction.

"take it," his brother called, rasping and breathless. his eyes were alight with excitement and fear.

"it's your birthday!" laurent protested, and found his voice cracking with effort. and he laughed, high and incredulous, both wholly knowing his brother and always, constantly, unable to believe what his wild mind might think of next.

it ended in quite a neat moment. auguste shrugged, and with uncanny ease flipped the massive ebony spear in his hand, as if it weighed nothing at all. and just as the boar righted itself and struggled, furiously, to its feet, auguste plunged the hollow steel into its side, drove it in hard, and gave it a vicious twist that gave an audible crunch of flesh, even above the screaming of the dying beast. jord and the rest arrived just in time to see the hideous creature breath its last, struggling breaths, and laurent heard prince kristof swear in kemptian. "ridiculous," breathed couderic, but it was with an audible smile in his voice. truly, no one ever had much of a chance against auguste, but they all liked to chase and pretend.

 

—————

 

NIGHT fell well after diner in early autumn, but dinners at the castle had been long, drawn-out affairs since the arrival of all of auguste's closest friends, often lingering into the early hours of the morning. laurent excused himself at the regular time, though. he had another event to attend.

the stables, full after a good breeding season, held four hundred head of horses. massive draft horses, built to pull carriages and wagons, rude ponies, war horses. stallions at stud and mares in foal. the task of night check was, therefore, a rather large effort. one night a week, the horsemaster's assistant had the evening off, and laurent stepped into his shoes dutifully, to better learn the scale of the operation. over the summer, he'd delivered foals with his bare hands, coaxed horses through colics or, sometimes, sympathetically ran them through with a spear when it was clear they would not recover to stand again. but the menial tasks mattered, too: that night he pulled a bent shoe, checked poultices, and fixed loose plaits. it was pleasant work, most of it done in solitude and side-by-side with stable boys of no birth at all, most of whom had grown comfortable with their prince's presence.

he stood before the main board in the grand aisle: every horse had a wooden placard with its name engraved neatly, and they could be moved depending on where they were being kept, what their quality was, what they ate, whether they were recovering from an injury or currently in training. he studied it, a small handful of placards in his hand, maneuvering things around like a general might draw in the sand.

someone had come to stand beside him and lingered. the horsemaster, he was sure: "i worry about oiseau's thrush. i thought that the straw might make a difference, but we can't seem to keep her feet dry," he relayed without looking away from the board.

"we pack them with ground shells in akielos. the powder draws out the moisture." it was, decidedly, not the voice laurent had expected, and he looked sideways with dull surprise at the achelon price. he was alone, and looking up at the board. laurent wondered if he knew what the fuck he was looking at.

"you have thrush in such a dry climate?" he mused suspiciously, stepping forward to place several placards in the spots he'd decided for them. he went up to the tips of his toes to adjust one, but only struggled for a fraction of a moment: the achelon's brown fingers plucked it from his fingers and raised it several more inches, asking "here?" laurent nodded curtly. he could not summon the annoyance that might have come naturally had someone else made the gesture. he just accepted the help.

"dry climate, but the stalls get wet, there, too." laurent saw out of the corner of his eye that he was being considered, and he turned to return the glance. "i was wondering if you might take a walk with me," damianos asked pleasantly, and laurent took a moment to consider—or pretend to. the answer came immediately in his head, but he made the achelon prince wait a moment to hear it.

"walk with me while i finish, then."

 

—————

 

CHASTILLON had gardens, but that was not the path that laurent led them down. instead, he walked them past the stables and along the sloping meadows, walking the lengths between sprawling paddocks. the moon was high and brilliantly full, enough light to walk by, to see the occasional frog skip through the grass, and to make out the distinct features of every horse dotted along the landscape. there had not been much left to do in the stables, and when the stable hands started to extinguish lamps, laurent had simply taken the liberty of extending their walk outside.

"it's a bit nicer here than in the gardens," laurent posited as he swung his leg over a low stone wall, and found himself pleased that damianos was so quick to follow him. he wondered, fleetingly, where he could wander that the prince might not follow. "it's not as if you can have a conversation to yourself there, anyway. everyone's eavesdropping."

"you prefer it here." damianos said it not as a question but a statement, an observation: he walked with his hands clasped behind his back, which was a strange sight, thought laurent: it was a position of chastity and deference, but it only served to make broad shoulders and muscled arms look bigger. "to court," he expanded.

laurent's brow creased, casting a sideways look of disbelief. "of course," he said. "there's no..." he paused, closed his eyes, and inhaled deeply through his nose, the scent of wild lavender catching in the air. "it's simple here. comfortable. you can put your mind to the things that matter. every word at court is vapid and duplicitous, no matter how curated my brother is about the company he keeps. power and influence mean that rats find their way through the cracks. it's something about the palace, the city, maybe."

"it's not so different in ios," laurent's companion admitted, which was rather unexpected. laurent had always known achelons to be proud of their law and order and logic, forever asserting them in the face of accusations of simplicity and barbarism. "something about any palace. any powerful man. it's why we have summer palaces. it's why so many kings fight wars. simpler than life at court, my father says. there's no room for artifice in fighting."

"you're close with your father?" laurent remembered what aristokles had said. pup is less fearsome than a wolf. but sparing a sideways glance at damianos now, he couldn't imagine the vibrant, cheery young man beside him turning into anything but a vibrant, cheery king of men.

"yes," and he said it with a kind smile that, had laurent just met the man, he might have mistaken for pitying, but he was learning that every smile damianos offered was one brimming with sympathy, as if all he wanted from his own joy was to share it. "not like you and your brother. and my brother and i are not close, really. i envy you both."

it was not an unfamiliar thing to hear, that what laurent and auguste had was extraordinary even among brothers. but somehow now it made him flush, and damianos' candor begot laurent's, even when he didn't intend it. "he's everything to me," he murmured, and it felt like a confession. "i would die a hundred times over for him. and for his son, and his son's mother, and anything else he loved."

he heard the prince beside him exhale deeply through his nose as beatrix, curious and plodding, drawn by the sound of her master's voice, came weaving through the tall grass to walk along the wall beside them in the night. "i hope one day i love like that," damianos said dreamily. "i think it would be freeing."

there was a hanging quiet between them, the only sounds their feet, and beatrix's, moving through the grass. it was damianos who broke the silence. "laurent?"

laurent didn't spare him a glance. instead, he came to a halt: they had reached the top of a small hill, where he knew that in the daylight, the view stretched over the forest, the sun sparkling over the lake. now, in the dark of night, the moon bathed everything in pale blue outlines: the treetops, her reflection in the water of the lake. it was spectacular, even at night. he sat on the edge of the stone wall, hefting himself up with the heels of his palms, and when he'd settled, the soles of his boots barely skimmed the top of the grass. "damianos," he answered, at his leisure.

"would you call me damen?" asked the prince, and laurent realized that he was the only one enjoying the view. damen, then, had not turned to look at anything except for laurent.

"it's what my brother calls you," laurent noted.

"it's what my friends call me," damen corrected, and laurent raised his brow: bold to assume they were more than arms-length acquaintances, but any possible irritation had been instantly quelled by the sheer pleasure of being called a friend. it was not something he heard often. the library books could not speak, jord called him "my lord," and aristokles never called him anything at all: he would simply snap loudly for laurent's attention.

finally, after a long moment, damen turned and lifted himself easily onto the wall, and laurent heard him sigh at the view, and he was very happy to share it.

"you say there's no artifice in fighting," laurent ventured. "is war, then, where you find peace?" he did not mean for it to sound quite as censorious as it did: auguste was the same way, a man drawn to the plainness of fighting, who found it simpler and easier to digest than the web-weaving of politics.

"not at all," damen said, and laurent was starting to anticipate this easy nature of his: laurent could say something in the sourest tone, and damen would let it roll off his back like a duck in water, countering with positivity. it was infuriating when laurent had meant to stab him in the side with his words, but when the venom wasn't real, it felt comforting to be soothed the way he spoke slow and easy to his fractious red filly. "maybe it's not the fighting that i love. although fighting is easy. it's the atmosphere, the camaraderie. in akielos, in my armies, all men are brothers. there's chain of command, there's respect. but there's love, too. we would die for each other out of love and loyalty. and war is straightforward."

"war is strategic," laurent corrected. but he heard so much of auguste in damen's words, he knew he was countering in vain. there was no room for stupidity in a commander of armies, but it was not the intricate thinking of philosophers or manipulators.

"and sometimes strategy is straightforward." always, damen responded cheerily. laurent hated it as much as he wanted to lean towards it and soak up a little bit of sunshine under the night sky.

"so you do know a love like mine for my brother. you would do the same for any of your men."

"no," said damen. "the way you two look at each other. the jokes you share, the little expressions. you're so easy with each other. he finds a way to talk about you no matter what the subject. you're so clearly devoted to each other."

"i share him," laurent said, and was slightly surprised to hear the edge in his voice.

"we all share the ones we love. he'll share you one day, too."

 

—————

 

AUGUSTE'S birthday spanned a weekend of celebrations, mostly forms of public adoration that were more for the delight of the veretian people than for auguste himself. but there were always celebrations that were for just the court: the most esteemed guests, the closest companions. and there were generally many of both.

the tournament at chastillon took place first, a full week before auguste's actual birthday. it was an opening celebration, a time to enjoy whatever weather early fall presented them with: sometimes it would be crisp and fresh, and laurent would wear ermine and leather gloves, while sometimes it would be balmy and still, summer lingering everywhere it could find a foothold, and laurent would sweat in even his lightest silk jacket. the latter was true this year, and he did not have the occasion to sit and lounge and be fanned by servants. he hadn't sat on the dais platform with his brother and the other royal guests since he was fifteen. tournament days meant work, not leisure.

of course, there was work in the armory, where jord oversaw the finishing not only of the weapons to be used in competition but of the prizes: exquisitely filigreed sword hilts and daggers in gold, inlaid with precious jewels and emblazoned with the princes' starburst. and there was work in the kitchens, preparing the unending stream of refreshments. but the busiest place in all of chastillon on the day of a tournament was laurent's beloved stable yard.

horses had been coming in for a fortnight in preparation for the race. three from patras, their delicate faces belying their wild eyes. a deeply unpleasant vaskian colt who had clearly never been whipped before: his handler had asserted in rather crude terms that the breeding stables they came from didn't use the whip, but the horse had tried to kill two stable boys in his first hours off the wagons, and laurent himself had hit the thing across the side with a crop so hard it squealed when it tried to take a chunk out of a groom's arm. veretian stables had no tolerance for hard keepers with dangerous habits like kicking at the stable boys who mucked and grained.

the remaining horses were a cobble of imports from the corners of vere and three creatures who lived at chastillon already, with the home advantage. all were leggy and thin-skinned with visible ribs catching the morning light, a true collection of fine racing animals. it was a full field, and each horse had not just a rider but a groom or two, and there were three different farriers in the yard shoeing with caulkins for grip on the grass, each speaking a different language. tack was checked, rechecked; white socks were scrubbed with castile soap and water until they were blindingly bright.

in front of his own mount's stall, laurent took a fold of wax paper from his jacket pocket and dipped the edge of a rag into the sticky resin inside, propping his brilliantly polished boot on the edge of an old bucket and smearing the sap along the inner calf. a favorite trick of his, it would ruin the saddle but keep his leg quiet and give him extra grip. the saddle would be worth the sacrifice, and not simply for the glory of winning. this was a precaution that might save his hide: the grip would perhaps prevent the chestnut filly from killing him. she stuck her soft copper muzzle out and gave the sap a curious sniff.

"well?" he peered at her, and she gave a snort. she might as well have been parroting back what he'd said. "are you going to be a good girl today?" he was thrown off balance by the shove of her nose into his hip, the bucket clattering on the ground and sending her skittering back into her stall.

"might be a no, your highness," said laurent's groom, who relieved him of the rag and sachet of sap, exchanging them for a brilliant racing whip, gold handled with a massive cabochon sapphire set in the butt. he had her bridle in his hand, which was equally as well bejeweled, and her bridle and breastplate were gilded, but just enough to catch the light and exhibit wealth: any extra weight for a race was wholly unwelcome, and too much decoration could fell a horse in difficult terrain.

the truth was, he'd toiled over the choice. there were fast horses in their string, all of them safer, fully broke. and this was the filly's maiden race: he had breezed her at a gallop before in the meadow and the woods but no one, not even the prince, was allowed to ride the track once it was marked, not until the race. it took two men to help laurent mount, one groom to hold her bit and the other to give laurent a leg up, and still she nearly scooted out from beneath him before he'd found his seat, and he'd ended up with one foot in its stirrup, clutching both reins with one hand, pulling her face into her chest to get her to settle or, at least, fidget in place while he checked his straps.

any horse before a race was tempestuous and difficult, well-fed and under-exercised so that their energy seemed to boil out of their pores. but the chestnut filly spun, repeatedly and obsessively, under laurent, practically dizzying him with it. she shied and kicked at any horse that came near her, even the ones that she'd spun too close to, and the bunny hops that she began performing compulsively often coincided with head tosses that left laurent inches from having his nose broken by her poll. it took both grooms to lead her to the start line, the last horse to fall into position, since laurent knew she would not be able to stand still for more than a few split seconds. that was all he needed.

she had never heard it before in the context of a real race, but the horn blast made something in the filly erupt, and she shot forward like an arrow. around him, laurent could hear the various calls of riders to their mounts: clucks and kisses and yelps and growls, anything to get the horses running. laurent didn't waste his breath. the thunder of galloping hooves was ceaseless, but as deafening as it might have been, it faded into the periphery of laurent's mind: no other pace was as important as hers, the fall of her hooves and the heaving of her breathing as she tore at a flat-out gallop down the dirt road that made up the first leg of the race.

the route meandered all over the different types of terrain at chastillon. a great blue flag in the middle of the road signaled a turn into the forest, with a quick drop into a small ravine. laurent pulled up, wheeling her around the turn, and she tossed her head, angry that she was suddenly being steered at all. the drop beneath her feat brought her focus around, though, and she barely avoided stumbling before tearing out along the forest floor. laurent felt a shuddering jolt as another horse's shoulder slammed into her flank, but she ricocheted off and launched over a rotting log in their path, landing neatly and giving a hard buck. laurent knew it meant she felt good, free, and he felt it too, even as little branches whipped his cheeks and he narrowly ducked under larger ones that might decapitate him.

they forded a wide, deep creek that marked the edge of the wood, the bright meadow blinding past the end of the tree line in front of them, and she scrabbled up the bank, furious that laurent was touching her mouth at all, mud and rocks churning beneath her in a barely held gallop.

once they had broken out of the forest and entered the vast expanse of the fields, it was less a challenge of agility and more of flat-out speed. a path had been cleared for them, the grasses mowed and rocks removed, gopher holes filled in to avoid any broken legs. every few hundred feet was a well-decorated hedge, or a wooden fence draped in the king's banners. bravery mattered here, too: to gallop, full-tilt, up to a fence that was so spooky was no mean feat. laurent knew that if he didn't ride with confidence, the filly would stop short and pelt him at a stone wall.

he let her go, wrapping his fingers in her mane to steady himself out of the tack, so tightly that he could feel her thick hair cutting into the flesh of his hands through his calluses. his legs were unmoving: his sap had dried well, so that all he had to do was stay balanced and help the filly keep her wits about her until the end. or, barring that, to just point her in the right direction. the wind screamed in laurent's ears, and he sang in his mind the children's song that auguste had taught him as a child, an easy way to keep pace and count his strides to each jump. lilting and sweet, in auguste's voice, it carried the both of them over water and ditch, wall and brush like wings.

another veretian rider told him later, as laurent stroked the filly's sweat-soaked neck and soothed her before liesel came down from the dais and draped the ceremonial wreath of yellow poppies over her mane, "you were six lengths ahead the whole second half." laurent's fingers ran over something rough, and with a furrowed brow, he grasped it with his nails and pulled on it: the filly shook her head, and laurent inspected the two inch long thorn that he'd plucked from the fatty skin just below her mane. she must have picked it up in the woods, and never once flinched, even though the thing was soaked with her blood and had almost pierced the crest of her neck straight through. he laughed, breathless, stupid. "épine," he said, flicking the thorn out into the cobblestones of the street. "fitting name for you," he whispered, leaning down as if telling her a secret. "you have been a welcome thorn in my side since the day we met."

 

—————

 

FROM chastillon to arles took a half a day with a quick group, but theirs was not quick. half of the court had come to the hunting lodge for the week, and the front courtyard was flush with varnished carriages flying every fashion of veretian family banner. some visiting nobles traveled in unmarked coaches, but plenty of the able bodied men simply rode. laurent sat astride méduse, watching nikandros usher aristokles into an awaiting carriage. the old philosopher had accepted the doting of his countrymen, even if he disparaged them when alone with laurent. either way, watching the kyros stoop and patiently lead an old man around had laurent amused.

"how did you get sidled with this old gargoyle?" he called, pulling méduse up close to the carriage. her thick black tail swished, full of spirit as usual, and nikandros turned to him with a scowl. laurent had come to offer the chance at ribbing and banter, and nikandros was clearly not interested.

"aristokles is a revered akielon mind. it is my profound pleasure to spend any moment i can in his presence," nikandros insisted in some piss-poor attempt at being defiant. perhaps he meant it, but laurent knew that aristokles did not return the sentiment. he talked about nikandros like he was a barnacle hanging to the side of damen's boat, happier every day to gossip about his home country. to laurent, it didn't really matter. damen was old enough to choose his own companions. where damen seemed to be openness and warmth, nikandros was forever suspicious and proud, but he also knew that this was a dynamic often attributed to he and his brother. laurent had found some sport in headbutting nikandros verbally. perhaps, if the kyros had a sense of humor, they could be friends: their respective kings' right-hand men. again, laurent offered a joke.

"that i cannot argue with. he is a revered achelon mind, and it is my profound pleasure that you spend as many moments as you can in his presence, so that i do not have to." laurent said it with a jaunty shrug of a single shoulder, knowing that his cheeky smile was provocative enough to get a rise out of nikandros. but he wheeled méduse around and walked her off before the kyros could get a word in edgewise, and felt the petty thrill of a little victory. he would torture this man into friendship, one way or another.

it appeared, however, that nikandros was not accepting any new or fun applicants for friendship. when they were on the road, flanked by soldiers, the achelon wedged his horse up between laurent and jord, bullying his way next to the prince. méduse's ears flattened against her head. "you disrespect akielos every time you disparage that man," he snapped, clearly having waited a long time to air this grievance. jord laughed and laurent echoed it, breathing a chuckle through his nose.

"you disrespect achelos when you kowtow to an expatriate. he was happy to leave aeginas. do you think i keep him here as a slave?" laurent snipped. nikandros' anger was amusing, but laurent would not let the man's tone escalate. it was already erring on the side of offensive.

"you treat him cruelly enough," nikandros argued. they were drawing glances from the soldiers on either side of the road, and from the rest of laurent's guard, who rode with them. certainly the odds were not in the kyros' favor if he wanted a fight.

"i don't treat him cruelly," laurent scoffed, tossing his chin into the air. "he lives better here than he did in achelos, and happily so. if he draws my ire then he could certainly amend his behavior. he chooses not to: he's inflammatory. you have that in common." he said it matter-of-factly, a simple observation, knowing full well that he, too, had the irritating tendency to be incendiary.

"spoiled little pig." the words were muttered under his breath in achelon, but neither kept laurent from understanding them, and nikandros must have known it. if he'd said it with some kind of humor, any kind of exasperation or even mild irritation, laurent might have even accepted it as teasing. but nikandros said it with unmistakable disgust.

laurent felt a flash of cold rage run up his spine. "you are a guest here, and you speak out of turn to your host," he spat back in achelon. "aristokles is my constant companion. i have known him for months, you've just met him. and you listen to his complaints, and you take them to heart without thinking because you're so full of contempt for our country, and you don't think that perhaps he whines about you when you aren't around? or that he whines about akielos, or that he whines about the cook to the maid and the maid to the cook? he whines about sun and whines about rain. he is just a miser. he whines to himself when he's alone, when he's run out of poor souls to inflict his pessimism on. and i love him for it!" looking down his nose at nikandros, he sneered, parroting back the insult. "stupid little pig. he has offered to extend his stay here with me just this week, to tutor and advise me in perpetuity. perhaps the concept is beyond a simple soldier's mind, but men can show deference and love without licking a general's boots. perhaps i should lend him to you, though. you could use someone to teach you how to think critically, to show you that the world is not just smiles and frowns."

jord looked like someone had just done something inappropriate to him, as he usually did when laurent's hackles raised like this. it was the same awestruck pleasure that laurent got when watching jord best another fighter, the admiration of a best friend, and it made laurent smile nastily. something had been smarting in his chest where nikandros had so immediately rejected the only way that laurent knew how to test the waters for friendship, and seeing jord look at him that way healed it. he did not need a new friend. he had ten friends in one man in his captain.

the men around them had slowed, if they hadn't stopped altogether, and laurent knew that they were causing a massive traffic jam along the road. he could hear someone, a fair distance behind them, call an irritated "oy!": whoever it was didn't realize what had caused the holdup.

nikandros looked hideous. his face was contorted in anger, and it was fairly clear that laurent had just made himself an enemy. he found the prospect just as delightful as if he'd found a friend: where auguste drew people in, laurent repelled them, and he liked it that way, frankly. only men of taste enjoyed his company. laurent could see nikandros processing retorts and rejecting them all: violence or real disrespect would have been treasonous, even for a foreigner. a guest of the crown could be put to death just as easily as a subject, especially this deep into vere, away from the border with achelos. auguste had forged an alliance after their father's death, but nothing was permanent, and the lashing laurent had given nikandros was nothing compared to what auguste might have done if he'd overheard the insult.

"are you quite finished with your barbaric show of disrespect?" laurent snapped, and it was not nikandros but another voice that answered him, in sweetly accented veretian:

"he is. nikandros," damen said calmly, and laurent turned in his saddle to see him riding up with the rest of the achelon party. they had been riding far enough back that they might not have realized nikandros had broken ranks to pick a fight before the entire caravan had stopped. jerking his head over his shoulder, damen beckoned his kyros back, and nikandros, as laurent suspected, made no protest, and wheeled his horse back into the small throng of achelon soldiers. he wouldn't be safe even there if he misspoke again, but laurent understood the gesture. a disappointed owner throwing a bad but beloved dog into the barn for the night.

"you will have to give me quite the fucking gift now," laurent huffed, but it was with the same arch of brow and twist of smile that he'd tried on nikandros. this time, the face he looked at broke into a smile, dimple aglow.

"i don't know that there's anything precious enough that could make up for the akielon blunders this week," damen smiled, and he rode up beside laurent, so that he and jord were flanking the prince. the guards, who had been watching, all seemed to turn as soon as they realized damen was not stopping, and the procession slowly began moving again. men seemed to listen to damen like they listened to auguste: trusting. he commanded without so much as speaking or lifting a finger.

"indeed. you are proving to be a truly foul people," laurent drawled, tickled when he heard damen breathe a laugh. "he hates us," he added, tilting his head back momentarily to reference nikandros, now several horse lengths behind them.

"he lost a lot in marlas." damen shrugged, holding his horse's reins in one hand, riding leisurely. his other hand was splayed on his own thigh, quite a bit of which was exposed, which was impolite in a different way than nikandros' hurled insults, in that it only offended laurent's peace of mind.

he had not expected the admission to be quite so casual. no one mentioned the battle in mixed company with achelons: the veretian victory had been exceptionally bloody, theomedes' attempt to retake delfeur a colossal failure. it was only when laurent's father had died that auguste was able to negotiate an alliance with achelos, a trade deal that had, mostly, over time, smoothed the relationship between their two kingdoms. but laurent knew the decisive victory was a sore spot for many achelon fighting men. and then, suddenly—

"you fought at marlas," laurent blurted. somehow it had not occurred to him, and he found himself unusually blindsided by the realizations: damen and auguste had commanded armies against each other and come to embrace only a year later at arles. damen had lost thousands of his men at swords loyal to the veretian family and come to vere now, warm and kind, a growing favorite of the royal brothers. laurent looked at damen with a new kind of incredulity. damen just looked amused. "is there no end to your affability?" laurent finally asked, accusatory. they did not need to talk about the battle, or about nikandros.

damen shrugged his broad shoulders, looking front towards the roads. "is there no end to your mischief?"

 

—————

 

BALLS were laurent's favorite, if thrown sparingly. too many and it simply lost its gloss, turning into routine, structureless debauchery. but a good ball once or twice a year marked real celebrations: the queen mother's birthday, laurent's own birthday, the spring equinox, the winter solstice, and of course, this, auguste's birthday, which often coincided with the harvest moon.

just as the tournament began the week of celebrations, the ball ended it. the palace was dripping with ornament: midnight blue banners and drapes cascaded over loggia windows, embroidered with sparkling golden starbursts, and massive torches extinguished in favor of hundreds of thousands of candles in brass hurricanes, a starburst stamped out of the side, so that all the light in the castle fell in deceptive, strange twinkles across the walls and ceiling. it was mysterious and delightful, thought laurent, and thus fitting dress for a celebration of his brother.

he himself dressed to, if not show up the palace, then at least equal it. his boots were brand-new and polished to a mirror shine, toe caps and tops done in an exotic reptilian hide, all black in a way that simply seemed to melt into his dress breeches. his white silk shirt disappeared beneath his jacket, which was rendered in the finest kemptian silk, the color of the kemptian royal family. it was, of course, impossible for anyone but the kemptian royals to get their hands on such a fabric, and liesel had gifted laurent a bolt when baltazar, as a three year old, had vomited on laurent's favorite jacket, ruining it. he wore this one with pride, the impossibly dark violet bringing out the pale yellow of his hair: it signified the ties he had to kempt, through his mother and sister, and marked him as royal blood from two kingdoms. nikandros would hate it, he thought, smoothing out a cuff after his squire had finished lacing it, admiring the way his gold signet ring glinted against the faille.

"very handsome," said jord, as if he were bored of hearing other people say it to laurent. laurent looked over his shoulder at the captain of his guard and found himself impressed: jord had shaved, combed his scrubby brown hair, and looked rather statuesque in his new doublet. laurent had the seamstress make it with the last new jacket he'd gotten: they now had matching blue velvet jackets, although laurent had left his hung for the night.

"you actually do look handsome," laurent said, a look of genuine surprise on his face as he stepped off the dressing platform and gave his hair an inspection in the looking glass. "you might bed a noble boy tonight, in that jacket. what sartorial visionary bought it for you?"

jord knew better than to engage. he just held the door open for laurent, and they marched together out of the prince's chambers.

 

—————

 

IT had been one of the first things they'd done together, their dance lessons: liesel was an excellent dancer, light on her feet, quick with lots of stamina and a love for music, and laurent at thirteen had had much to learn in the art of dancing at court. the lessons had long since ended, the student reaching the quality of the teacher, but on occasions of dancing in the great hall, they were always a favorite couple to watch, a brother and sister through marriage, both tall and elegant and nimble. he had skipped the minuets, but when the first swelling waltz came on, he was there with her, her wide skirt in navy taffeta brushing breathlessly over the polished marble floors, inaudible over the boisterous music.

around and around they spun, feet moving together only the way familiar pairs could, his hand over a waist that was smaller than his own by half, which was a feat. the room moved in loops, the golden chandeliers and intricate tiles blurring together as they sped through the other couples, a shallow-hulled ship skipping over the waves. they were both breathing hard, both through exhausted smiles, and a delicate sheen of sweat had broken out along her dark hairline, shimmering like the loose diamonds that had been woven through her hair. he had come to adore her so fully, so quickly, his sister.

the waltz crescendoed and ceased, and there was pleasant applause by all who were not dancing: auguste clapping loudest of all, stepping down from the dais where he had been watching on the throne. "superb, as always," he said warmly, "but i'm afraid i cannot watch another moment. my wife is too beautiful: i must cut in."

laurent, who could feel the neat hair at the back of his neck damp with sweat from the dancing, simply exchanged a deferential bow for liesel's proper curtsy, and excused himself with a smile. no one was waiting for him: he would sit with some water for a moment, a dance or two, and let a partner materialize. but at the crowd's edge he found his path blocked.

"you can't mean to retire?" it was damen, dressed in the full regalia of his station, chiton the same rich blood red as his cape, a bold, monochromatic spectacle with his gold lion shoulder clasps and gold laurel crown. his smile was, as always, a challenge. laurent was simply glad he was taller now than the last time they'd collided in arles.

"i have no one to dance with," laurent shrugged. his manner was relaxed, he was tired and a touch dizzy and two goblets of wine in.

"well, i've been beating them all back with a stick. it was hard work. surely i didn't do it in vain?"

laurent just blinked, realizing damen's brown hand was outstretched, palm up, an offering. "where is the stick?" he asked pedantically, but damen never seemed to miss a beat.

"stuck up inside some poor pretty veretian nobleman. he was very stubborn, and easy to impale." and while laurent was tired, he did not find it so easy to give up the high of dancing. moreso, damen's smile was lopsided and cheeky, giving laurent's heart a firm squeeze, so with a disbelieving shake of his head, he thought, here goes nothing, and laid his warm palm on top of damen's. "you are a horrifying barbarian," he countered weakly from around a smile. "i hope you don't dance like one."

he was grateful liesel had taught him both to lead and to follow when he'd asked: any suitor had been charmed by his dancing, man or woman, and it was clear that damen had only been instructed to lead, but knew veretian dances well. any court dances were similar, anyway. laurent had found his way easily at the court at bazal, their dancing a bit wilder and more whiplike than the grand waltzes of vere. but where veretian men were reasonably delicate leads, damen was firm, and laurent felt himself rather swept away as the music rose and warmed.

damen was, in fact, an excellent dancer. what he lacked in light-footedness he made up for in grace of size, aware of every inch of his long, broad limbs and in perfect, complete control, tempered and even. it was easy for laurent to let himself ease into the pleasant act of following, his hand light on damen's gilded shoulder. he might have been aware, or concerned, about damen's sandaled feet: laurent stepped purposefully when he danced, and a clumsy partner with exposed toes might have ended up with one swiftly broken, but everything about the way damen danced was sure, and intentional, and solid.

"you dance well," laurent offered, a genuine compliment that he found sitting warm in his cheeks.

"i'll tell you a secret," damen said, and laurent was surprised that he sounded already breathless: surely a commander of armies would have enough stamina to last the first minute of a dance. "it's because i'm not really leading."

"oh?" they spun, sailing over the checkerboard floor, every face and dress and jacket and tapestry in the room blurring into nothing, a kaleidoscope of illegible colors. "your hand on my waist says otherwise." and it was low, laurent realized, fingers splayed over the small of his back in a way that felt protective, possessive.

"my hand is on your waist to better feel where you want me to take you," damen smiled, and the look he gave laurent was knowing, and laurent felt somehow exposed, pleasantly, because it was true: every subtle shift of his body earned the same in damen, and laurent realized that damen was studying him, making minor corrections every few steps in his own dancing, responding to the slightest change in laurent's posture. with every whisk, their eyes held, and laurent felt dizzy with it, how every time he glanced off to gauge their direction, damen's eyes were still on him when he returned, ready to feel and lead where laurent might direct him.

he had the barest sense of other couples dancing, and only felt slightly more recognition when he heard the telltale swish of liesel's skirt or saw a flash of yellow hair dancing alongside them. his feet hurt and he didn't care, every pinch of his new boots feeling like a jolt of energy, lifting his feet lighter like a horse being poled. he had the wild thought that perhaps the song might go on forever and he could dance until his feet bled, that the two of them might never run out of vitality, sweeping over the black-and-white tiles until they were reduced to nothing but sweat and dizzy minds.

but no—he heard it, knew this waltz well, knew the back end of the crescendo and that every step, three, two, one, meant the end of the song. the warm hand at his waist lingered for half a moment too long, and when polite applause filled the hall again, it felt like somewhere during the dance, someone had tied a very short leash between them, so that when damen bent his knee, laurent bowed forward, balking at their sudden distance.

and then, someone called for a minuet, and laurent balked at that, too. quick steps on toes and just the brushing of fingers, he was not interested in at all, especially not now. he breathed hard against the tight laces of his jacket, and watching damen stand straight again, was hit with something sudden. just as he'd done in the dance, damen was looking at him, open and bright-eyed, waiting for direction. so laurent would give him a challenge.

"water, i think," he said breathlessly, and swept past damen into the crowd. he surveyed goblets as he passed until he found one that held water and not wine, and he plucked it unceremoniously from the hand that had been holding it, only barely registering a shocked face, which was all, since simply taking someone's drink was within his rights in his brother's court. he didn't wait to see whether damen was following him. that would have belied the chase, if he turned to look over his shoulder too early. no: he would walk through the east door to the colonnade with his chin high, tossing back the cool water he'd commandeered, and only when he was halfway down the quiet stretch of hallway did he glance back.

like a dog following a master with a scrap of meat, damen was there, a handful of long paces behind laurent, as if he'd hesitated in the hall before deciding to pursue. his stride was longer than laurent's, and when their eyes met he smiled impudently, as if the look was all the confirmation he needed to make chase. his feet were silent on the marble floor, but laurent could see him visibly picking up his pace, ready to close the gap between them once more.

but laurent was not such an easy prize, and with a thrill and a smug smile he clutched his fingers around the goblet and took off. an invitation for a real chase.

the same sharp pain in his feet that had swept him more effortlessly in dance did it in running, too, and the sharp clap of his boots against the floors echoed through the mostly empty halls. he knew damen was chasing him, not just from the soft sounds behind him but from every furtive glance when he turned a corner or wove past a carved column, ducked through a filigreed door or slipped behind a golden screen. damen was always there, sometimes gaining ground and sometimes losing it, but grinning all the while.

in front of them was a courtyard, loggias wrapping around in each direction: laurent feinted right but spun left, knowing this part of the palace as well as any, and as they split off, he spied damen across the courtyard. they were now neck-and-neck, but laurent was clever.

"you think you know where you're going?" he called, goading, fully winded, side stepping and slowing until he came to rest in one of the big, arched windows. damen, his mirror, followed his lead until they were both breathing hard, pausing, staring at one another from opposite sites of the garden.

"i think..." damen called, pausing for more breath: his hands were on his hips. "if i got a good running start—" he glanced over his shoulder, then back at the courtyard, "—i could jump."

laurent heard himself laugh stupidly. still clutching the goblet with one hand, and panting, he took a shallow breath and took off again.

he knew that their halls would not meet at the other end of the courtyard: his sloped down while damen's sloped up, and laurent was spat out at ground level, at the base of a massive shell-shaped staircase. he saw damen emerge at the top and glance around, bewildered, until he spied laurent, and his expression made laurent burst into laughter again. it would have been simple enough for damen to just descend the stairs, but in the time he would have taken, laurent would have been sprinting off again, which was what he'd intended. instead, he found himself frozen to the spot when damen splayed his hand over the wide, flat balustrade, sizing up the smooth marble, then sitting on it, and launching himself with a massive push of his arms.

laurent clutched the goblet to his mouth in some sort of exhilarated horror as he watched damen slide down the bannister like a little boy: the heir to the achelon throne would slip off the side and crack his skull open on their polished palace floor and it would be hard to explain what happened, an insane boyish chase scene gone wrong. but with all the grace and easiness that shouldn't have belonged to such a big body, damen's feet hit the floor first, neatly and exactly where intended: at the base of the stairwell. stilled at this daring feat of immaturity, laurent forgot to move and suddenly they were as close as they had been while dancing, or even closer. both of their chests rolling and heaving like stormy oceans, he could feel damen's breath on his cheeks, his nose, and felt the goblet being pried from his fingers, moved away from his lips.

"have i shown appropriate prowess yet?"

laurent laughed, again, breathless and feeling drunk even if he was not. everything, all at once, felt absurd. he had thought so much of damen's affability and attention had been some kind of extended apology for his misstep at chastillon, but somewhere early on he had stopped actually apologizing, and laurent realized, logically, what he had felt in his stomach and heart already: damen was here, dancing with him, performing ludicrous stunts, giving him gifts, because he wanted to be close to laurent. the realization felt like his heart had been put to the pyre.

"passable," laurent managed, his attempt at being cooly disapproving so mangled and flushed and feeble that he rolled his eyes at himself. his heart, willing his mind to give up its obstinance just once; his mind, willing his heart not to contort and flutter at the first flicker of courtship like a blushing little girl. but he had been courted before. and it had felt nothing like this, like... friendship.

it was just the two of them and the goblet now, but laurent watched damen's broad form stoop and, gingerly, set the cup down on the floor. he could have thrown it, and caused a racket, and the delicacy with which he treated it had laurent on edge, somehow. anticipatory. and then, with the goblet out of the picture, it was just them, damen tentatively crowding laurent's space, his big, brown eyes dark and hopeful.

"i have one more skill," he promised, and laurent felt warm fingertips press below his chin, tilting his face up. "well practiced."

laurent felt a frigid breeze coat him, and was keenly aware that his jaw clenched, his chin sticking out defiantly. "i'm not." the words themselves might have been an admission, but nothing about the cold gaze he gave damen suggested that such a weakness or inexperience could be used against him. he was not secondhand, and he squared off his shoulders as if to say so: genuine, brand-new and untouched, he was a rarity and treasure. but damen's expression just softened with understanding.

"maybe this time you can actually let me lead," damen mumbled, and it seemed for a moment as if there was no more distance between them: was what laurent felt the brush of damen's lips or just a breath? but in the space there, the hair's breadth between them, damen whispered "may i?", a perfunctory search for permission that might as well have been deposited right into laurent's mouth. there was no room to respond, to speak: the only way that laurent could give his blessing was to close the gap, to crane his neck and breathe into the kiss.

it was warm, and damp, but not like the slick, slimy handful of kisses that laurent had endured in the past. this was simple, the way damen's hands came to clasp at laurent's cheeks. he could feel his back pressing against the tapestried wall, but didn't wonder how they'd gotten there. he had just a feeble hold on his own mind, and he used it to do only the most menial actions: no thoughts, just commanding his hands to wrap around damen's obscene forearms, practically the size of laurent's calves. he marveled at how soft damen's skin was, palmed it hungrily like touching a lush new bolt of velvet, and let himself be kissed.

 

—————

 

"YOU seemed to enjoy yourself last night," auguste said, unbothered to conceal his emotions: he spread a chunky bergamot marmalade on an airy breakfast pastry, glancing up at laurent with a single high, arched brow.

laurent narrowed his eyes, looking peeved only for a moment as he cradled bautizar in his lap. the child was plump, but laurent still plucked sweetmeats and fresh berries from the spread in front of them, offering them to his nephew as if he were a servant feeding his king. bautizar was babbling about kittens he'd seen in the stables, and laurent, like any doting adult, only half-listened.

they were breakfasting on the king's terrace, lemon trees still in the balmy air, high, wispy clouds sitting paused in the clear blue sky. liesel laughed to herself, reading a book and eating strawberries at a leisurely pace, somehow so graceful that her white linen day dress was completely unmarred, even despite her sticky-fingered son.

"i did. it's always such a pleasure to celebrate you, brother," laurent demurred, but auguste just snorted.

"mmm," liesel mused without looking up, "such a dignified noise." like a good sister, she would often side with laurent, which had served to ingratiate her to him early on as a child.

"well, someone had a good time with you," auguste hmphed. "the crown prince of achelos has requested an audience with mother and i in an hour."

laurent stilled, his eyes going fat at this news. it was plain enough that the cogs in his mind didn't need to turn to read it: this was what suitors did. no war or commerce would have included the queen mother, at least not explicitly requested her presence. in fact, in this case, it was auguste who would be a secondary figure, a stand-in for their long gone father. it was always the parents of a veretian noble who gave permission to court their children.

"you have to let me come," laurent blurted, forcefully enough that bautizar slipped out of his lap and rejoined his mother, his fingers stained blackberry violet, the color of the kemptian royal family. "it's about me," he asserted, "you can't have that conversation without me there!"

auguste looked more amused than he had at any of his birthday celebrations, which served to further heat laurent's cheeks. "you have never been there before," auguste shrugged, and laurent knew that he was needling him but could not avoid rising to the provocation. he had known that suitors had come before, of course. but he had not had much cause to think of them, kneeling before his mother and brother, requesting permission to court him, and now also had cause to think of the rejections that hennike must have doled out.

"i have never had..." laurent countered, and paused to look furiously at the silver pitcher of orange juice in front of him on the breakfast table. he smoothed the neat jacquard tablecloth with his hands, fingers swiping over berry stains that little bautizar had left in his wake. "i have never had a real prospect before." his words came slow and furtive, his cheeks hot.

"of course you have." auguste said it so casually that laurent started, his gaze snapping back up to his brother. he did not have to ask: auguste read his incensed, imploring expression, smirked, and poured himself another glass of juice. "the patran prince."

laurent was horrorstruck. "you sent me there as an emissary!" he whispered, incandescent and embarrassed because, yes, it made all the sense in the world. two weeks in the court at balzar and torvald had barely spoken a word policywise, and laurent had left with trunks so overflowing with jewels and gold that they'd needed to ride home with two extra wagons, to say nothing of the way torvald had looked at him. respectful, but adoring.

auguste took a long draught from his goblet and set it down. he was no longer grinning or ribbing, but looking at laurent with patience in his eyes. "i have sat in that hall a hundred times hearing men beg for a moment of your time. i have heard from every noble girl's father, i have heard real emissaries from the vaskian empress. i hear them all, and i turn them all down. because i would not have..." auguste's lips pulled into a rueful smile. "i would have not have you endure the fumblings of idiots. i know your virtue." he swallowed, and there was a shadow of sadness that softened his eyes. laurent felt keenly aware of liesel's presence, and slipped her a glance: she had put her book down on her lap and watched both brothers with an expression of such tenderness that laurent felt his throat constrict. they were suddenly not teasing, and laurent felt uncomfortably seen.

"i would never entertain an offer from someone that i didn't think would treat you with patience, and kindness. did torvald prove... ungallant?"

laurent shivered. "no, no," he fumbled, "he was... very gallant. he never tried..." he began rearranging the strawberries left on bautizar's little dish, in order of ripeness. "he just didn't interest me. i... felt nothing for him." it was honesty: he had tried, at certain points, to give his heart a kick, to feel anything more than simply flattered, but there had been nothing there.

auguste just searched laurent's face, and laurent let his brother study him, met his gaze with all the honesty and openness that he could share. and after several very long moments of quiet, auguste tore his pastry in half. "you should come hear the achelon's overture. it would do wonders for your confidence to hear the way these people speak about you." and laurent knew that every word was dripping with sarcasm, because his confidence needed no scaffolding, and it made him feel as if all was right again.

 

—————

 

LAURENT sat on the silk at the foot of his mother's throne: his presence had not been expected by the servants of the court and so there was no seat for him on the dais, but he waved off their fretting and simply tucked his long legs underneath him, resting his elbow on her knee. it was a position of comfort, to rest his chin on her skirt and look up at her, the same way he'd done as a boy, and to feel her slender fingers tuck a lock of his hair back into place, the tap of her forefinger on his chin, her age-old reminder to carry it high. they shared identical, tight-lipped smiles, and the doors to the great hall opened.

it was quiet inside, just the king's guard and the royal family, and damen entered alone. laurent watched him approach: the bold all-red look from the night before had been retired for the traditional, pristine white, which frankly did more for his skin tone, making him look healthy and radiant rather than dark and enigmatic. but laurent remembered the way his skin, olive and warm, had felt under his hands, and thought he'd take either.

it was apparent by damen's expression, the hiccup in his stride, that he had not expected laurent's presence, which was admittedly nontraditional. but, in what was becoming a familiar sight, he took a breath and pressed forward, his jaw set in determination. it was courage, and laurent wondered if this was more terrifying than commanding an army. the idea that he could instill intimidation like that was a thrill, and he matched damen's gaze with his own chin high, surveying his approach expectantly. he did not have to imagine that his posture and look were mirrored on his mother and brother's faces. it was hereditary, that cold confidence. not many men could walk towards it alone with their heads held high.

he did not grovel like laurent imagined perhaps others had, prostrating to a king and queen mother as decorum demanded. after all, it did not demand that a crown prince kneel for a king, and a deferential cant of the head was enough. damen's eyes met laurent's fleetingly, then tore away up to the figures on the thrones, as if he could not do this without completely ignoring the prince's presence. he began without ceremony, clearly having practiced this speech.

"my venerable hosts. your hospitality has this time, as every time, proven gracious beyond compare. every time i have the pleasure to stay in this country, i find it more enchanting, rich with culture and progress." laurent wondered if this was true. it certainly did not seem to be nikandros' truth. "you know, auguste, that i treasure our friendship, and the friendship of our nations and families, that i am proud to say i have such a friend, that the quality of your kingship inspires me, and that when the time comes for me to take it, you will always have a brother on the akielon throne.

but i have found myself..." he paused, a breath to gather his confidence. "on this visit, to come to know another member of your family, better than i had before. and i find him to be simply resplendent. brilliant in mind and spirit with a wildness to his heart, and charm that i have found impossible to resist. and to be perfectly frank, the idea of sailing back to ios without—telling him—" damen forced the words out through his teeth. yes, this was memorized, and he had not imagined making this declaration in front of laurent, and with all of this confirmed, laurent could not help the upwards twitch of his lips, altogether flattered and amused and something else, too. it seemed there was nowhere he could run where damen would not follow dutifully, even the arms of his family. "—how i have come to cherish our every meeting, how i find myself seeking out his wisdom and humor at every hour, how his companionship brings me light and life that i haven't felt before now."

damen turned his eyes, imploring, to hennike.

"my lady, i humbly ask that i might extend my stay in this fair city. two weeks more of your gracious hospitality, so that i might have the proper time to show your son, laurent, my true intentions. that if he found me worthy, he might come to ios, and my family show him the kindnesses you have to me. and if he finds himself happy there, and if he cared to be, and if he found in me some fragment of the happiness i find in him, he would be a prince of akielos, and you would have a veretian on the throne. an alliance of more than just friendship and good graces."

laurent heard his brother shift in his seat and turned his gaze: auguste was sitting with an elbow on the great carved arm of the king's throne, his chin in his hand, surveying damen with narrow, icy eyes. after their breakfast, laurent knew it was just a tactic of intimidation, a warning more elegant than the one he'd given in the stable yard at chastillon but a reminder. and auguste looked left to his mother, who in turn looked down at laurent. the lock of hair she'd swept back from laurent's forehead had fallen again, and dutifully, patiently, she replaced it once more, her slender fingers sweeping down his cheek. there was some kind of depth to her face that he had not seen in many years: a sadness, one he remembered her wearing at her vanity many years ago. loss, mourning. his heart constricted at it, and he frowned, canting his head, wordlessly searching. and her beautiful face warmed, and softened into a knowing smile. "do you remember what i said to you, once?" she murmured, and he searched his mind for the memory. a bracelet of emeralds, the herbaceous scent of her pink cream. she still applied it daily. he wondered if it was why she was aging so gracefully, her features seeming to grow more beautiful with time.

"i remember you said it would be whoever i like. that we would decide together." suddenly, he felt thirteen again, or seven, or three: a little boy, legs tucked beneath himself, sitting at his mother's feet, his fingers furtively fiddling with the faille of her gown. he had no throne. a second son, his family was his kingdom.

"my decision is that you would find someone who would nurture your mind, who would embrace your strong spirit. someone unafraid of you, for you are fearsome, my love. and someone who challenges you, and demands all the excellence in the world from you, because it lies within you. someone as tenderhearted as he might be lionhearted." she tilted her head, studying him. "what do you say, my son? do you think the future king of achelos might prove a suitable prospect?"

laurent feigned thoughtfulness. he glanced up, considering. he glanced back at his mother, considering. and he turned his glance, leisurely, to damen, who had been standing with his hands clasped behind his back the entire time, weight on the balls of his feet. he was on tenterhooks, visibly so.

and laurent considered him, for several long moments intended to torture. his mother's words had ignited a flare of pride in his chest: if she thought him such a prize, he could make sure that damen knew he was not getting some shy doe, easily tamed. laurent was a young buck, antlers sharp.

"i think we might as well let him try," he drawled, although he could not force his expression to match his words. he spoke like a haughty, untouchable prince, and stared at damen with happy promise.

hennike spoke, clear as crystal, with all the coolness that came so naturally to their bloodline. "then you have our permission, and our invitation to extend your stay in arles as long as you like. you are our honored guest, now more than ever. we hope you might prove yourself worthy of vere's greatest treasure. he will be the one to decide whether he might endure a sail to ios when you take your leave." laurent could even hear the arch in her brow, the challenge in her proud posture. damen had gotten through the first door, but there were many locked ones ahead, and she made no congratulations. despite all of this, damen was clearly struggling to swallow his smile, hiding it with a perfunctory nod and a respectful bend at the waist. it was formal, a ceremony for no one but the four of them, and when damen turned and walked out of the hall, it was with all the etiquette of a supplicant who had been given a generous gift.

laurent glanced up at his mother beseechingly, who gave him a coy smile in return, and he was on his feet like a spooked colt, sprinting out of the west door. if he could have bucked, he would have.

he skipped past portraits of veretian kings and queens, the colonnade running parallel to the great hall, until he reached the vestibule: he could only see damen's back, the sweep of his short cape, as he stood talking animatedly with nikandros, who looked as if he were trying very hard to conjure an expression of vague enthusiasm. it would be clever, laurent thought, to simply stride past them both with his nose in the air, which he did, chin high and proud, tossing the stubborn lock of falling hair out of his eyeline, every inch the spoiled little pig.

"i'm very tired," he heard damen say behind him, and when he cast a glance back over his shoulder, he saw that nikandros had been unceremoniously abandoned, and was no longer attempting a smile, letting his face fall into the picture of grumpiness. damen was two paces behind laurent, clearly having immediately turned to follow him. "could we avoid sprinting this time, maybe?" damen called, and here, rather than in the hall, he showed all the cocky strut of a prince who had won a prize. he looked very arrogant indeed, and laurent found he liked that he had inspired such smugness.

"it would hardly be proper for you to chase me through the halls of my own home," laurent chided, slowing his long stride just enough so that they could walk side by side. "it might bode poorly for you. a barbarian in a skirt hunting the virgin prince of vere in his own palace."

"nikandros thought you might try to have me killed," damen mused. and then, rudely: "are you really?" and then, instantly bashful and penitent: "and it is absolutely none of my business." laurent waited until damen seemed through talking to himself, and led them out to the courtyard on a familiar track.

"i might argue that it is your business now," laurent offered. he felt an uncomfortable pressure in his chest all of the sudden, and with a sweeping fear, he realized he had never had this discussion before. "i am not a virgin," he admitted, if it were an admission. certainly felt like one: he had no trouble encouraging the rumor that he'd never taken anyone, or been taken, to bed. but it was a door he was wary to open in conversation, because the follow-up question was not one he could answer. in the bright sunshine, a flock of blue-green thrushes whistling idly in a pear tree nearby, laurent felt exceptionally exposed. but damen, miraculously, didn't ask the dreaded question.

"just poorly practiced?" he asked instead, a clear lilt to his voice. he thought he was being coy, repeating their words from the night before, but laurent stopped short at them, his boots halting in the gravel pathway.

"i'm afraid of it," he said plainly, and this was the real admission. he had to inhale deep through his nose to steel himself, but it was out before he knew it.

and as he always, always seemed to do, without fail or expectation of anything in return, damen looked at him pleasantly, if not with a little sadness in his eyes. he'd stopped, too, and canted his head searchingly. "i hope you won't be much longer," he said kindly, and frankly, and laurent could have forgotten what they were talking about at all. "i would..." damen began, and looked up at the sky pensively, visibly struggling to find the right words. laurent realized there was a flush under his sunkissed cheeks. this crown prince, a commander of armies, did not seem to be able to find the words to say what he would. usually men had no problem articulating what they would do to laurent, just a harder time articulating anything afterwards when jord had relieved them of their teeth or their tongues.

it didn't matter what it was. there was no end to that sentence that might have surprised laurent: damen would be honored, gentle, interested, wonderful, endlessly virile, understanding, patient. he would teach laurent how it was meant to feel, show him there was nothing to be afraid of, wait forever. he had clearly committed, after saying rather the wrong thing many days ago, to only saying the right thing. but the real answer was simpler than all of that, and it made laurent smile despite himself. "...like to."

"come on." laurent resumed their path, through a regiment of boxwoods trimmed into different animals: they called this part of the garden the menagerie, and each was significant to vere in some way. a proud stallion, leafy hoof striking the ground; a lynx, slinking as if in the midst of a hunt. two chamois locked in a headbutt, a red deer with impressive horns, a rangy wolf, a dense and rather ugly sanglier. well, it was well rendered, but to laurent a well rendered boar meant an ugly one. at the other end of the parade lay an outbuilding with a high gabled roof paneled almost entirely with glass but without windows, two ornately carved wooden doors the only break in the smooth stone walls. laurent opened the doors with a great tug, although the effort had gotten significantly easier over the years as he'd grown taller and stronger.

"i don't know what i expected," damen admitted as he walked in, stooping as if the ceilings weren't six times his height. he was sheepish. "but it should have been this."

"it's a quiet space. more or less mine. i don't think i've ever actually seen anyone else using it. and i'd know. i'm in here as much as the books."

the library was cool, the high noon sun simply giving the place a glow instead of baking it, which was sometimes the case on very hot summer days. they were not alone, however: a pair of maids were dutifully dusting along the glass cases where very delicate tomes were kept away from oily fingers. they looked up as laurent spoke, and curtsied, and when they rose they spotted damen, and laurent could not hold in his bubble of laughter at their expressions. he didn't think a woman had ever looked at him that way: pink-cheeked and awestruck, all aquiver.

"go, and tell the kitchen we'll take lunch here today," he said cooly, "and every day until my handsome suitor leaves for ios." both girls started, looking between the two men. perhaps they were new and poorly attuned to the gossip of the palace servants, or perhaps laurent and damen's burgeoning courtship had escaped detection. either way, laurent was tickled by the abject looks of embarrassment on their faces at the realization that they were overstaying their welcome and intruding on a tryst.

as they trotted out the heavy wooden doors, damen circled the long table in the center of the room, taking stock of the place, and laurent was happy to observe. he studied the way damen fit into the space: too big, yes, and too brown from the sun, he was not a boy—or a man—who had grown up spending his time cloistered and tucked away, the way laurent had. but laurent found damen's presence there comforting and somehow familiar, if not a bit eccentric. "i thought maybe you would like to see it," he offered, and found his voice had a bashful quality.

"i thought maybe you would be leaving for ios with me." laurent had to blink slowly for a moment to realize damen had rewound, and was addressing laurent's dismissal of the maids. it was usually a connection he might have made instantaneously.

"well, you have two weeks to convince me. i get dreadfully seasick," laurent sniffed, "so it will be an unusually tall order. and i would need to bring épine, apparently she broke a boy's leg in two places day before yesterday. i'm the only one who can ride her, and if i'm gone for too long, she'll go back to feral." damen took this challenge, like so many others laurent had presented him, with a smile, and a puff of laughter through his straight, dark nose.

"here, then? and the stables? where you spend your time," damen clarified, and this time laurent was riding with him, prepared for the quick reversal of topics, his mind coming back into focus.

"that's right. although there are lots of good places to read here. as i got older, people started to figure out that if they were looking for me, they could find me here. boys from court, come to bother me."

"were they cruel to you?"

"no, no," laurent sighed, waving the idea away with a white hand. he pulled one of the heavy walnut chairs from where it was tucked neatly under the table, and took repose. damen, however, continued his self-guided tour, wandering over to inspect the newly dusted glass cases. "they weren't cruel to me at all. but we never liked the same things, and they didn't laugh at my jokes, and i liked coming here to be alone. so i started to explore, and find the quiet, overlooked spots. i can show you those, too. but this felt... like perhaps the right place to start."

"what's your favorite thing you've read?" it was such a simple, sweet question and laurent was unprepared to answer. no one had ever asked it before. he leaned forward, an elbow on the table and his chin in the heel of his palm, watching damen explore the space.

"things that would bore you."

"oh, i don't doubt that," damen laughed: he'd disappeared behind one of the tall rows of shelves, his finger dragging along book spines until laurent couldn't see him any longer. "but i like to know what you like." the words floated back to laurent like a warm breeze.

"there's a piece of vaskian poetry," said laurent loudly, so that his own voice might carry. he watched the ends of the shelf rows, guessing which one damen might emerge from next.

"'i walk alone, for my love has left me'," laurent recited. "'i am despoiled, a quiet village with naught to offer but rye and dust. plucked from the root, pried from a shell, your pleasure or mercy my master and kin. what i have i left to give? my last breath, a drop of blood to quench or whet. i am lost. impaled, far freer in death than in life. but there, no darkness: i am cursed to a half-light. there is no quiet, just the cavernous roar of eternity, unending. for i am made like a rock for the sea, that love might batter me, and better me.'"

he glanced to his left, where damen had appeared at the far end of the aisle and stopped to listen to the recitation. after a reverential moment or two, he finally spoke down the aisle. "i didn't know the vaskians were such good poets," he called, and laurent gave a lazy shrug of a single shoulder.

"in ver-kindt, where it's very cold. i think men who are always cold are moved to write more beautifully," he said dreamily, watching as damen strolled slowly down the aisle towards him once more.

"we have very good poets in akielos," damen countered, looking rather put-upon, his dark brow furrowed and lip jutting out like a slighted boy.

"oh?"

"'there once was a princess of isthma, and all of the men tried to kiss her. she denied them, of course, for her love was a horse, and a normal-sized cock couldn't fix her.'"

laurent shifted his chin on his hand, peering narrow-eyed off into the distance, lips in a tight line: the look of exceptionally deep thought and focus. "it's perfect. it doesn't even really rhyme. or make sense." he looked back at damen with the kind of meditative, peaceful gaze of contemplation that a proper scholar might have had after a particularly moving reading, and it made damen laugh. he'd had a set to his shoulders that said perhaps he wasn't sure how the joke might land, whether laurent's austerity would allow it, but despite himself, laurent had found damen's rather base wit infinitely charming.

there was a rap on the doors behind them, and both men looked back at the small flock of servants who came in, arms laden with trays of honey pork and violet yams and brilliant oranges and plums so fat and dark they would burst at the slightest touch. this, thought laurent fleetingly, was surely the happiest he'd ever been.