When Laurent was born his mother gifted him a medallion of silver, engraved with the symbols of the sorcerers of Kempt. She sewed prayers into his swaddling clothes with her own hands, for good fortune, and whispered lullabies in her harsh foreign tongue. The medallion hung to the canopy of Laurent’s cradle, to protect him from the spirits of the night, and Laurent watched it dangle just out of reach with wide eyes. He was a quiet baby, who remained still in the Queen’s arms at official functions and hardly ever cried, and always listened intently to his mother’s stories about the magic of the moon and the kingdom beyond the ices where death never came.
Auguste, who was getting too old for folktales, often joined in to listen regardless. The stories of his mother's people were fanciful and wild, nothing like the dry accounts of long-ago battles his tutors insisted he should learn. Akielons had their demigods of legend, the Empire had the Amazons of the highlands, and Kempt had the spirits of the night. Ancient magic from a distant time, long passed from the world. There were some small rituals the people still kept: lit candles for easy travels, nuts and berries for health, copper talismans for fertile crops. Sometimes the rites worked, other times they didn't. Chance, Auguste said, and superstition.
Chance seemed to be on Laurent’s side, often. Lost trinkets turned up where he said he would, hounds and horses took to him with ease. When he was displeased the skies turned grey, clouds heavy with rain, and years later the Regent’s servants would whisper that the young Prince’s bad moods came and went in hand with the storm.
Once, when Laurent was seven, his mother led him to the gardens at dawn and pressed an acorn between his chubby fingers, small and smooth. That was life in the palm of his hand, she said, and Laurent looked down at it slowly, frowning.
“Like a seed?” he asked, in his mother’s tongue.
“An oak seed. You’ll need to bury it.”
Laurent’s thoughtful expression turned eager. It wasn’t often that he received leave to muddy himself in the dirt, and he took it gladly, kneeling down among the fallen leaves to scrap a bit of soil away with his hand.
The ground was cold and humid under his fingers. After some time, Laurent picked up a fallen twig and used it to dig down further, the tip of his tongue caught between his teeth in concentration. Once he deemed he’d done enough he placed the acorn carefully into the small hole, then covered it up neatly, laying a few yellowed leaves on top so that the ground hardly looked disturbed.
When Laurent glanced up to catch his mother’s eyes he found her smiling, and felt a strange spike of embarrassment at the indulgent look in her eyes.
“There,” he proclaimed, standing up. The knees of his trousers were damp and dirty, and he understood now why Mother had Lorraine dress him in his riding clothes earlier.
“Is it going to grow?”
“It might,” Mother said. “In the spring, we will know.”
“Oh.” Laurent looked down to the ground. “I’d like it if it grew.”
Hennike’s hand came to rest on his head, brushing his hair. “When you put effort into something,” she said, “it's a pleasure to watch it grow.” She caressed Laurent's cheek, and her fingers came back dark with dirt. “Back inside, now. Before you're seen with mud all over your face.”
He ran to the edge of the gardens, where his governess was waiting for him. Hennike followed, slower, and when she cast a look behind her to the tall trees and the fallen leaves her breath caught in her throat. The ground was red and yellow with the colours of autumn, the skies golden without a cloud. And there, where Laurent had knelt in the dirt, was a thin green sprout jutting out above the soil, stretched towards the sun.
When the Queen died, rains poured heavy over Arles for a week. Her tomb was exquisite, with intricate carvings on the wall and patterned tiles, and thick raindrops fell on the silent funeral procession, washing away the tears on Laurent’s face. Auguste walked just ahead, his presence an endless comfort, just as it’d been the night before when Laurent had snuck into his brother’s rooms, sobbing, just to feel Auguste’s warm body and the comforting rhythm of his heartbeat.
There was a feast, after, as it was the Veretian tradition, and the banquet hall was draped all in black. His mother’s people would have the torches out blazing and mourning chants sung under the stars, but here the only lament was that of the wind howling outside through the gardens. Then the lords and ladies of the kingdom walked one by one to the high table to pay their respects, and Laurent didn’t want to stay and count the new lines on Auguste’s face, how Father seemed to have aged ten years within a few short weeks. He excused himself and ran to Auguste’s quarters, where he waited, for hours.
Auguste returned in the dark hours of the night, and the noise of the door opening startled Laurent out of his uneasy sleep. He’d fallen asleep sprawled on his brother’s bed over the covers, and the room had gone cold. He shivered.
“It’s late.” Laurent’s voice was croaky with sleep.
“It is. I was with Father and the Council all evening.”
It seemed strange to Laurent that the Council should bother their King and Prince in such a day of mourning with affairs of state, but he was tired and didn't think much of it.
“Can I,” he said. Something behind his nose pickled. He felt like crying again.
“Of course,” Auguste said, and Laurent felt a renewed surge of affection for his brother. “But get inside the bed, and let me call someone to fetch you warmer clothes. You're trembling.”
Laurent watched as Auguste went to open the door and beckoned servants inside the bedchamber. He sent his valet to fetch sleep clothes from Laurent's quarters, then instructed two chambermaids to tend to the hearth and light up a host of candles, even though it was late in the night.
“What is this?”
“Didn’t you say that in Kempt they light up fires for the dead?”
“To lead the way,” Laurent said, surprised. Auguste was a man grown and the Crown Prince, whose thoroughly Veretian education had left no place for foreign nonsense. He'd never thought Auguste would pay attention to this.
Mother’s silver medallion dangled around Laurent's neck after being tucked under his clothes all day. It was carved in a motif of hawthorn leaves and swirling flames. Laurent showed it to Auguste. “See?”
“Right. You can have your fires, little brother. And I,” he said, “need to write letters.”
Auguste spent the whole week writing letters, and when he wasn't doing that he was locked in advisory meetings with Father. Laurent would normally ask what was happening, try to follow his brother into his state meeting until he forgot himself and said something that made everyone remember he was there, and got Uncle to look at him with indulgence and Father to draw and exasperated sigh and order him back to his lesson. But the wound of grief was still raw, and he found himself not caring.
There had been a discussion with ambassador Meinrad, Auguste said, in a serious tone that made it clear that when he said ‘discussion’ he meant ‘argument’. Meinrad was the ambassador from Kempt, a distant cousin of the Queen. He and Mother had been friendly, and Laurent had often accompanied his mother to the ambassador’s quarters when they’d met, to satisfy the requirement for chaperones, and the ambassador had given him sweets.
“Mother liked Meinrad.”
“She did,” Auguste agreed. “But the queen of Kempt sent a missive, and things are going – very badly.”
“The ambassador wishes to depart at the earliest. But the rains are still heavy, and the river is too swollen for a ship to sail. Father won’t hear of it. He ordered the ambassador to leave at once, and to take every Kemptian at court with him.”
There were conclusions to be drawn, analysis from years of tutoring and politics lesson, but all Laurent could say was, “Mother would be unhappy.”
Auguste didn’t answer.
The dispute with the Kemptian delegation went on for close to a fortnight. The ambassador departed Vere as soon as the unnatural rains ceased, leaving half his household behind to take care of his belongings. Aleron cursed his wife’s people, called them cowards and mercenaries and, for some reason, cursed the King of Akielos as well. Auguste stood behind him, his lips drawn tight, and always told Laurent to go back to his studies.
Most of Mother’s people had left for Kempt with the departed ambassador, back to their families in their faraway mountains. Some had remained in Arles, reassigned to other duties. Father’s household was kept busy as more and more grievances arrived from the farmers of Delfeur, protesting the invasion of their borders. Laurent was left to himself in the grey days that followed, as a flurry of messengers flocked in and out of the palace and armies all over the kingdom geared for war. He wandered the library and the gardens, feeling a sort of aching loneliness that at times threatened to overwhelm him.
Only once he went back to the northern corner of the palace gardens, where the sculptured fences and manicured paths gave way to patches of disorderly trees, but the memory of his mother seemed to linger in every bush, every stalk of grass. The oak tree they’d planted together had grown, faster than it should have, but when Laurent went down to the gardens after Mother’s funeral he found it burnt and split in half, the trunk charred where it had been hit by lightning.
At Marlas, before Auguste rode off to fight the Akielons, Laurent offered him the medallion that he still wore around his neck.
“For luck,” he said, and Auguste smiled indulgently.
“We make our own luck, little brother. Warrior’s luck.” He turned around so that his valet could fasten his padded leathers properly, his long blond hair shimmering like gold. Laurent watched as Auguste was dressed in his armour, trying to swallow back that sick feeling in his throat.
Auguste didn’t understand. He’d been raised as a Crown Prince should, steeped in Veretian tradition, and didn’t put much stock in foreign superstitions. He kissed Laurent’s brow and rode off in his shiny armour atop his black horse, and Laurent knew he was riding to his death.
After the battle, the winds blew furious over the sea as the two armies counted their dead, and two Akielon galleys smashed against the rocks of the Ellosean shore.
The first time Uncle bid Laurent to undress slowly in front of his eyes, Laurent stammered and hesitated. It wasn’t the first time Uncle had seen him like this since Auguste died, but it was close enough, and Laurent didn’t have much practice taking his clothes off by himself, his fingers clumsy and inexperienced. When he’d finally worked his jacket open his silver medallion had slipped out of his collar, and Uncle’s eyes followed it.
“What is that?”
“Nothing,” Laurent said. “I mean it’s – Mother gave it to me.” He didn’t want to think of his mother now. She would certainly disapprove, like the court would if they found out, Uncle said, because they were short-sighted and jealous of royalty. Mother had been neither, of course, but she wouldn’t understand that Uncle was all Laurent had left, and that he would care for him, and if Mother hadn’t died he wouldn’t be here now.
“It’s nothing,” Laurent said, again, and he took the medallion off and put it with his folded clothes. Uncle’s eyes followed him now, not the medallion, and he felt uneasy and oddly excited. He liked that the attention was on him, and not on a piece of silver.
“A trinket,” Uncle said, and then he put his hands on Laurent’s body and Laurent didn’t think much about the medallion anymore, and later as he was falling asleep he heard his uncle’s voice say, “I’ll gift you something better.” And the day after, at dinner, Uncle presented him with a pair of earrings, rubies on gold.
Uncle took him for hunts and to visit the Crown’s estates in Varenne, and to the shores in Ladehors and at Chastillion with Councillor Audin. After the rubies there were emeralds, sapphires and carved gold from Vask, but Uncle’s regard shone brightest of all, filling Laurent with warm contentment and pride like nothing before.
It didn’t last. The medallion remained at the bottom of Laurent’s jewellery box as the seasons changed and summer gave way to winter and then spring, but as the days became longers and the nights warmer Uncle’s regard for him seemed to cool down, reduced to only the most perfunctory displays of familiar affection. He no longer called for Laurent in the long lazy afternoons, no longer took him out for long rides just the two of them. The first time he mocked something Laurent said in front of the Court – done with such sharp wit that Laurent nearly doubted his own ears at first; it couldn’t be possible that Uncle would be making fun of him, not with such mean intent, not in front of others – Laurent turned his face away to blink off sharp tears, and then he drank so much at dinner that his head hurt when he woke up.
The summer of his fifteenth year went by in a biter haze, fuelled by drink and old memories that hurt like knives. There was a new boy at his Uncle’s side, young and slim as a twig, all prettied up in pet maquillage and heavy stones dangling from his ears – like a whore, Laurent caught himself thinking, uncharitably, and then he wondered if that was how Uncle had seen him all along, him, who was to be the King of Vere. He stood up from the table, skulking away on unsteady legs, ignoring Uncle and the boy-pet and the whispers that followed him like ripples of breeze.
That night, Laurent had a very confusing dream. He was in the garden, planting the oak seed, but Auguste was there instead of mother. His clothes were torn and splattered with blood, his face gaunt with death. At his neck, he wore Laurent’s medallion.
When he woke up, he remembered what day it was: the summer solstice, the day when the shadows retreated and in Kempt the night never set. He remembered something else, too. All the stories Lorraine told him in whispers when Mother was away and Laurent begged her to, stories that left him scared for days and shivering pleasantly. Stories of bloodthirsty ghosts and avenging spirits, stories of restless dead who couldn't find their way. No one had lit fires when Auguste had fallen at Marlas.
When Laurent woke up, he knew what he had to do.
There was a man named Govart who’d been on Father’s Guard and should’ve been kicked back to the gutter where he’d crawled from, but Uncle liked to keep him around to do his dirty work for him. Laurent didn’t want to think about Uncle yet – that wound was too raw still, exposed and bleeding; he knew he hated Uncle for throwing him away but a part of Laurent loved him still, and it was all too confusing to think about it for too long.
He was sure about Govart, though. Laurent hated Govart, who’d known all along what was going on with Uncle and Laurent and who couldn’t stop making crass jokes about it, who leered at Laurent when they meet in the halls and called him Princess in a voice that made Laurent want to punch his teeth out. It wouldn’t be princely, however, and it would only encourage Uncle to badmouth him further, so Laurent kept himself in check and didn’t pick a fight with Govart, even though he badly wanted to.
Instead, he did it the Veretian way. With knives, in the dark. The men of Laurent’s new Guard didn’t like Govart any more than Laurent did; it took three of them to surprise him on the way back from one of the brothels he liked to frequent, and Rochert, who had a mean streak, slipped a blade between Govart’s ribs when he tried to fight back.
“What?” he said, a nonchalant answer to Laurent’s glare. “You said to bring him and not be seen. Didn’t say anything ‘bout bringing him unharmed.”
“Were you seen?” Laurent asked, urgently. If it all went as it should, tomorrow no one would care. If it didn’t, it would be another weapon in Uncle’s arsenal against him. But it was worth the risk.
They were in the gardens, in the same spot where Hennike had taken him all those years ago. An oak tree had grown here once, and then it had died and some overzealous gardener had it carted away. It didn’t matter.
“You may go,” Laurent told the men. Only Jord hesitated.
The wind was raising, howling through the branches and fallen leaves. The silver medallion was cold against his chest, the dagger glistening in the moonlight when he drew it from its sheath. Jord had knocked Govart out cold in the streets and smuggled him into the palace passing him off as drunk, which was for the best. Laurent had never killed anyone before; he wasn’t sure he could if he looked him in the eyes, even if it was Govart.
Laurent’s arm rose and fell. Blood splattered all over the ground, warm and black under the moonlight, and Laurent thought of Auguste felled by Damianos’s sword, Auguste’s blood spilling on the fields of Marlas. Then he ripped the silver medallion from his chest and buried it in the blood-wet ground, and waited. The wind turned to smoke, thick and harsh-smelling, obscuring the light of the moon. There was no garden around him anymore, no stars blinking in the black skies above.
“Auguste?” Laurent called, haltingly. “Brother? Are you– Is there anyone?
He is not here yet.
It was a voice, if it could be called that – it felt like the wind howling, like the rumble of a storm, coming from everywhere around him and no place at all. It reverberated through Laurent’s bones, shaking him to the core.
You want your brother back, the voice said. It wasn’t a question, but Laurent nodded all the same.
What do you have to offer?
It was hard to speak, among the heavy smoke. “What do you want?”
That is not how it works. You have to give up something in exchange. Something worth it.
“I,” Laurent said. He could have given up all the wealth in the kingdom. He didn’t think it would suffice. Beyond Auguste, what did he have left? One year ago, Uncle had been fond of telling Laurent that the two of them were all each other had. But Uncle no longer seemed to care, and Laurent had begun to wonder if he’d ever had him.
“I don’t have anything,” he said. Ludicrous, Laurent thought as he spoke. He was a Prince; he had everything. Just nothing that mattered.
That’s not true. The voice was harsh and cold like a winter storm, chilling Laurent down to his bones. You have plenty.
You do. There are many things you treasure, the voice said, booming through him. With every word, the sounds came closer. Your horse, that your brother gifted you when you were a child. You like riding her, and you enjoy being good at it. You like putting bigger men than you down in the dirt in the practice court.
“That’s…” That was meaningless. Intangible.
You could trade the use of your legs.
Laurent went very still.
You enjoy your books. You like the stories you find there, and you enjoy knowing things other people don’t. You could give up your sight, it said, and immediately the world went dark.
Or that sharp mind of yours. The voice was very close now, and the shadows were everywhere. Laurent couldn’t move, couldn’t see a thing. You take pride in it. Is pride worth your brother’s life?
No. Laurent thought. He could no longer speak. He was scared, cold terror clawing inside of him with icy fingers. He remembered Auguste’s pale corpse, the thick red curtains of Uncle’s bedroom and the heavy doors closing behind him. He thought of Uncle’s face turning sour when he looked at him, and he wondered if Auguste – if Auguste came back, would he care for Laurent if he were crippled, or blind, or insane, something broken to be thrown away.
And then he remembered Auguste’s smile, the warm hold of his hands and the way the sun caught in his hair when he threw back his head in a laugh. And he thought: all of it would be worth it, to have Auguste alive. Even if he wouldn’t love Laurent anymore.
“I accept,” he said. “Whatever – anything.”
Anything. This time, the voice sounded pleased. Laurent felt it retreat, felt the pressure on his chest release. The darkness receded, and Laurent closed his eyes against the sudden blinding light of the day.
Around him was the battlefield at Marlas, green grass turned coppery with blood. Around him men charged and fell and died, their screams lost in the distance.
Kneel, the spirit said.
Laurent stiffened, an instinctive reaction, disgust mounting through him. Anything, he’d offered. He hadn’t expected…
The spirit’s laugh was like the crashing of waves, the loud rumbling sound of a waterfall. Breathe, young prince, it said. Kneel, and bare your neck to the blade.
Laurent went to his knees in the blood-stained grass. The sky was just as bright as it had been that morning, before Auguste had died and rains and thunder had come lay waste to the field of the dead. He felt something sharp and cold over his chest, across his collarbone, felt it move quickly and slash through the skin with a burning pain that had him screaming. Blood trickled warm down Laurent’s chest. It hurt, like something inside of him was ripped off and away, and Laurent thought of Auguste bleeding out under the same sun. And then he crumpled to the ground, face first, and he didn’t think anymore.
Laurent came to himself slowly. He was face down on his bed, over the covers, and it was cold. He was naked. He scrambled to cover himself when he realised, self-conscious, but the room was pitch black still, too early for even the humblest of servants to be awake. The air felt heavy, humid and charged with static, and there was a low pressure in his belly, nerves and anticipation. Outside he heard a rumble, like thunder.
That strange, pressing feeling of uneasiness stayed with Laurent through the morning. He felt as though he couldn’t breathe, closed up tightly in his lacings, and there was something nudging at him, prickling in the back of his mind – he’d had a dream, of Marlas, of seeing Auguste fall with a blade to his chest, and his own whispered words. Anything.
He asked Jord what had happened last night, and received an odd look in return.
“You said to get rid of – of it, Your Highness,” he added that last part in a whisper, as if Laurent should know what the hell he was talking about. “Orlant and Rochert went. I escorted you back to your apartments.”
“You saw me back here?” Laurent pressed. “Was anything out of the ordinary?”
Jord’s eyebrows looked as if they were about to climb into his hairline. Curious.
“Nothing out of the ordinary after you returned to your rooms, Your Highness. You went to bed.”
Laurent nodded, uneasy. There was something strange going on, and he had no idea what it could be.
Outside, the streets were bustling with people. Dawn had risen over Arles behind the clouds and the daylight filtered through a sickly yellow, the air heavy with humidity like before a storm. And the mausoleum on the hill, where the kings and queens of old rested, had split open clearly down the middle, as if struck by lightning. The carved roof had crumbled, and Prince Auguste’s stele had been hit. His grave was cracked open, and all the people could see there was nothing inside.
Later, Laurent would hear the accounts. A strange man had been seen wandering the streets of Arles in the storm, wearing worn rags and a pendant clasped around his throat, and the few who’d crossed his path thought him a madman and turned away. He’d walked, relentless – and once he reached the palace there the people who caught a glimpse of him thought he might be a vision, a memory. But he was there, solid, and the hounds at the sentry gate barked when they sensed his approach. The sky was dark with night and streaked with lightning, and his skin was pale in the moonlight. He pounded at the door, and the heavy metal shook when he slammed with his fist. Of the sentries on duty that night, two had been at Marlas. One had seen Prince Auguste dead.
But there he was, standing in the half-light of the torches, and his eyes were cold.
“You – Your Highness,” the sentry stammered. “You are–”
“Open the gate.” Auguste pushed at the gate again, making it croak in its hinges. The iron began to bend.
“You are dead.”
But Auguste’s gaze was heavy, and the guards hurried to do as ordered, as if in a dream. Auguste hardly paid them any attention.
“I wish to see my brother,” he said, and walked in through the gate and inside the palace.
There were two of the Regent’s guard standing outside the entrance to Laurent’s wing when he made to leave, coldly ignoring the glares Jord was throwing their way.
“What is going on here?” Laurent asked. He’d asked Rochert, who was standing at attention next to the door, but it was one of the red-clad men who spoke.
“Your Highness. The Regent has requested you remain inside your apartments this morning.”
Laurent looked at him. The man had a long nose and broad shoulders that were at a height with Laurent’s eyes. “That is preposterous,” he said. “Jord, I believe I’ll go to the stables.”
“Your Highness. Your uncle has ordered you remain here, for your own safety. He is with the Council–”
Laurent looked to Jord. “Is the palace under attack?”
“No, Your Highness.”
“Am I under arrest?”
The Regent’s guard made a choked sound in his throat. Jord laughed. “I wouldn’t think so, Your Highness.”
“Then,” Laurent said. “I believe I have a right to go wherever I wish. You men can join my Guard if you like.”
From the men’s face, it was obvious that they very much didn’t like the idea of marching behind Laurent’s common-born men, but they could hardly refuse. Laurent felt a brief twinge of annoyance, but it was quickly swallowed up in the strained sense of anticipation he’d been feeling since he’d woken up in his bed, still feeling the echoes of that vision.
He walked down the corridors where the strange feeling of restlessness persisted. It was early enough that most courtiers wouldn’t be around, but the corridors were unusually busy with men at arms and high ranking servants, who went strangely quiet when they crossed his path, bowing low.
“Has something happened?” he asked Jord as they walked, low enough that Uncle’s men wouldn’t overhear. He hardly dared to hope.
“You mean besides…” Jord caught himself. “There was a commotion at the sentry gate during the night. And… an incident in the city. Lightning struck some of the buildings.”
“Was there a fire?” Laurent asked. “What kind of commotion?”
“No one was hurt,” Jord said but he sounded unsettled. “Thierry from the City Guard was on duty last night, and Baudet, but they wouldn’t tell us what happened. But I asked…” He swallowed. “I asked if it had anything that would concern you, Your Highness, and they didn’t deny it. But the Regent will tell you, I am sure.”
“Yes, if he believes it suits him.” But Laurent wasn’t about to wait for Uncle to decide he should be informed. If something – if anything had happened, the Council room would be where he found out about it.
He hurried, nearly running among the tiled corridors, going so fast his men had to scramble to keep up with him.
There were red-clad guards at the entrance of the Council’s chamber. One called weakly at him.
Laurent pushed past them. He pushed the door open, hands trembling, excited and terrified.
Inside there was Uncle, and Councillor Jeurre, and Audin, and half a dozen more people. None of it mattered.
Inside, there was Auguste.
He was pale, clad in ill-fitting clothes. He looked just as he had the last time Laurent had seen him, dead and cold.
“Laurent,” he called again, urgent and hoarse. The world was spinning wildly around him; when Laurent opened his mouth, he thought he might sob.
“Auguste?” he asked, and then. “You’re not dead?”
“I,” Auguste said. “I’m here.”
Laurent took a step, then instinctually stopped. The room was dead quiet. He half turned, looking around himself; everyone was staring. Rochert’s mouth hung open.
“He’s – You’re seeing him?” To his own ears, he sounded like a child. “You’re here.”
“Yes,” Auguste said. He held out one arm, and his outstretched fingers brushed Laurent’s hand. He was real, unexpectedly solid. Alive.
A choking sob in Laurent’s throat. “Auguste.” He’d seen him dead. Lifeless and rigid, encased in a stone crate, laid to rest. He’d seen him cold and lifeless and… there had been a dream, Laurent remembered. In the dream he’d been a warrior, cutting down enemies on the battlefield. He’d thrust his sword into an enemy’s throat and watch him bleed out, a sacrifice to a hungry spirit of death.
He blinked. There was a silver medallion hanging around Auguste’s chest, heavy and covered in dust, and Laurent looked at it and couldn’t shake the feeling he’d seen it somewhere before.
“I had a dream,” Laurent said, slowly. There had been smoke, and a strange voice that went all the way down into his bones. “I hoped… I woke up and I felt like...”
“You called for me. I heard you.”
They were still touching, barely. His vision had gone blurry. Laurent wanted to let himself crumble in his brother’s arms, like he’d done when he was a child.
As if sensing his thoughts, Jord shuffled awkwardly behind him. He cleared his throat. “We’ll be right outside. Your Highnesses.” He said it awkwardly, encompassing Laurent and Auguste both. Auguste was here; he’d come back for him. The door closed behind them and Laurent’s legs buckled now that he didn’t have to pretend to be strong any longer. That strange pressure that had been in his chest all morning finally gave way, breaking into a long harsh sob.
Auguste’s hold was tight and strong around him. Auguste’s breath was against his neck, cold, wonderful. His hands roamed over Laurent’s body as if to memorise the shape of it. “Laurent. I’m here. Laurent.”
And Laurent found himself crying, like he hadn’t in more than a year. “I missed you so much.”
“You called for me,” Auguste said again. “I heard your voice.”
He hugged Laurent tightly, and the hold of his arm was colder than it should be. Colder and stronger, like an iron grip. Laurent’s forehead was pressed against Auguste’s collarbone, his ear just above Auguste’s sternum.
Auguste’s heart wasn’t beating.
“Auguste.” Laurent tried to disentangle himself, to no avail. “Auguste, I can’t – you’re crushing me.”
“Oh. Sorry, I’m…” He stepped back, and Laurent gasped a lungful of air.
“Laurent, I’m sorry, I’m – Did I hurt you? I ripped open the palace gates this morning,” Auguste said. “When they wouldn’t let me in. I don’t know what’s happened to me.”
“You died.” He didn’t mean for the words to sound accusing, or hysterical, or like he was about to cry again, but they were all those things. “You died, Auguste, you’re dead. Your heart’s not beating.”
“How are you here?” But Laurent knew it even as he spoke – the dream he’d had, the spilled blood, the whispered promise: anything.
And then Auguste said, “You called for me.”
“Yes.” Laurent found himself pacing. He stared at Auguste and found his brother staring right back – of course he would, Laurent had grown since they’d seen each other last. He’d gotten taller, broader across the shoulder. What did Auguste think of that? What did Auguste make of him?
“I did something,” Laurent said slowly, looking at Auguste’s well-loved face, his unnatural pallor, his broad chest that wasn’t filling with breath. “I think I did something. I think… I don’t think it was a good thing.”
“Look at me,” Auguste said, even though Laurent was already looking. “Laurent – it doesn’t matter. Whatever you’ve done. Thank you. The last thing I remember….” He touched his chest and shivered, and Laurent thought of how it must have looked when Damianos’s sword went in, all the blood and gurgling noises and bits of lungs. He’d only gotten to see Auguste’s body after he’d been washed and clothed, his wounds neatly stitched up, ready for burial. “It hurt,” Auguste said. “And now I’m here with you. Thank you.”
He smiled, and it was like the old Auguste from Laurent’s memories, the beloved brother he’d missed so much for so long. Then Auguste touched his chest, absent-mindedly, and said, “Looks like you gave me your token after all, brother. Did you bury me with it?”
Laurent barely glanced at it. “That’s not mine.”
“Yes,” Auguste said, slowly. “Yes, it is.”
Laurent frowned. “Brother, I think you are wrong.”
“You were always wearing it,” Auguste said. “You wore it all your life. Since Mo–” And then he stopped. “Laurent,” he asked, slowly. “Laurent, do you remember the fires? The candles for the dead. To light the way. That night we spent in my rooms, after...”
He looked at Laurent cautiously, as if he didn’t know what to expect. Laurent didn’t know what he was supposed to say either; he didn’t know what Auguste was talking about, and he thought the answer must be plain on his face.
“What about Mother?”
It was a whisper. Laurent remembered Father’s grief and a cold tombstone, and how everyone around him always said Laurent had Mother’s eyes. But she was long dead, so long that Laurent couldn’t even remember meeting her.
For a moment, a brief moment, Auguste looked grief-stricken. But then he shook his head and all the confusion and fear went away, and it was his brother here again, alive or near enough, the only person Laurent had ever needed.
“It doesn’t matter,” Auguste said, slowly. “Laurent, come here.” And then he strode across the room in two huge steps and held Laurent close, cold and solid like marble, and when he spoke his breath rustled through Laurent’s hair like a wind through the northern forests, even though his lungs didn’t move with it. “It doesn’t matter,” Auguste muttered, and Laurent didn’t know who he was trying to convince, if Laurent or himself. “We’ll have each other now.”
And then he kissed Laurent’s brow, the way he always used to, tender and cold as ice, and Laurent shivered.