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“Prince Laurent of Vere and Akielos,” says the tournament herald, “challenges His Exalted Majesty Damianos, King of Akielos.”

Auguste’s brother, looking cool and slender as ever, strides into the ring as though unaware of the commotion running through the crowd at this announcement. He bows to Auguste, heels together, one hand on his sword hilt, perfectly correct.

“A bold challenge,” Auguste says.

“The privilege of rank,” replies Laurent, with something that might look like humility if you didn’t know him well.

They are at Marlas. It was the obvious place for this, the first formal meeting of councils since Laurent crossed the border as equal parts envoy and prize. An alliance, even one strengthened by marriage, is like a tree. It must be tended, watched, its branches guided along the proper frames, else it withers or grows wild. Friendly sports such as this tournament are a vital part of that. A small amount of blood, spilled in the ring, as an offering against anything larger.

Laurent looks well, Auguste thinks. More confident. Hiding less of his sharpness, his brightness. The afternoon sun strikes gold notes from his hair with such eager force that it should be audible: a hammer on a bell.

Auguste looks sideways at where Damianos is already standing, smiling, unpinning his cloak of office.

“I’m going to need something to fight with,” Damianos says.

The tall kyros, Nikandros, shoots a look at his king that bespeaks an almost familial exasperation. He signals a member of the guard. The king’s sword is fetched hurriedly, along with the pieces of Akielon armour that are worn during such bouts, and Nikandros is the one to help Damianos into them.

“Did you plan this, between you?” Nikandros demands.

“No,” says Damianos. “I think Laurent is putting on a show.”

“How refreshing,” says Nikandros flatly. Damianos laughs at him, and strides down into the ring.

Laurent handles his sword comfortably, at least. Auguste sits forward in his chair. He has no illusions that Laurent will be any kind of match for Damianos. Still, he is looking forward to seeing what Damianos and his Akielon swordmasters have managed to make of Auguste’s scholar of a brother in the past months.

“En garde,” comes the call, and, “fight.”

Within two minutes, it is obvious that this is not that kind of show.

This is a meeting of experts.

Laurent’s style is not Akielon at all. It is the elegant, measured style of the old Veretian masters, and he moves with a surety that could only come from years, years of gruelling practice. Damianos has both strength and superb skill on his side, but Laurent has speed and grace and sheer quicksilver flair on his. He and Damianos fight as two people do who face one another regularly: with blows parried before they are half-completed, each clearly aware of the other’s tricks, often falling into an unconscious rhythm, and greeting with equal delight any advantage gained by either the self or the opponent.

Auguste watches, as enthralled as anyone else in the crowd.

“How long,” he asks Nikandros presently, in the Akielon tongue, “do we expect this to go on?”

“I couldn’t say, Your Majesty,” says Nikandros.

“Come, man,” says Auguste. “You can hazard a closer guess than I could.”

“The problem is, it depends on the day,” Nikandros says. “The shortest bout I’ve seen, Damianos disarmed him almost before you could blink. The longest was near two hours.”

Auguste actually tears his eyes away from the fight, at that.

“Two hours?”

Nikandros, watching the clash and pattern of swords, gives a resigned nod. “Damianos was proving a point, and the Prince refused to be proved upon, even when anyone could see he was about to collapse from fatigue. He’s as stubborn as a mule, that boy. Er,” he says, clearly remembering himself. “I mean to say, Your Majesty-–”

“No,” Auguste says, smiling. “That is a fair assessment.”

Thankfully, it does not stretch on for two hours. It is not long at all before Damianos completes an intricate sequence of footwork, bringing himself up within Laurent’s guard, and twists his whole arm in a circle. There is a sound like an anvil being struck. Laurent’s sword flies sideways and Laurent himself is forced tripping backwards, then down.

Applause rises. Laurent, sprawled on his back in the dust, lets out a short and brilliant laugh. Auguste’s chest constricts painfully at the sound, then releases with a soft, hot feeling. Laurent is taking Damianos’s outstretched hand, leaping lightly to his feet, allowing himself to be led over to where Auguste is sitting under the bright silk of the canopy.

Auguste congratulates the victor first, clasping Damianos’s arm and expressing sincere admiration for the man’s skill with a sword.

“Perhaps I will challenge you myself, tomorrow.”

“I would be honoured,” says the King of Akielos.

Auguste then beckons to Laurent, who steps close, brilliant and dusty, under the eyes of two nations. Today Laurent is hiding even less of himself than Auguste had known, and somehow all it does is make Auguste aware of the depths of secrets that must still be there, shadows called into sharp relief by the sun.

“I did wonder who you intended as audience for this particular show,” Auguste murmurs, while kissing his brother on both cheeks. “You could have told me, Laurent.”

Laurent is smiling. His blue gaze is unruffled, though still lit with a glint of exertion. He says, “No. I couldn’t have.”

Auguste hears the unsaid words: not while it was useful to Laurent to be the spare, harmless prince. Not while it was necessary to Auguste’s safety. Sometimes Auguste does not know how anyone can breathe, under the blazing and inexorable weight of Laurent’s love.

“Well fought, little brother,” says Auguste.

Laurent steps back and looks a challenge at Damianos, who smiles and takes Laurent’s hand and kisses the knuckles, holding his gaze. Laurent’s face falters into an expression of pleasure that makes him look younger. The full force of Laurent’s attention, like a charging army, is on Damianos, who absorbs it with nothing more than a deepening of his smile. Damianos has learned not only how to breathe, but how to flourish. How to blaze alongside him. It looks exhausting. They look happier than any two people Auguste has seen.

“If you were wondering,” says Nikandros, breaking across Auguste’s thoughts, “yes. They are always like that.”

“My commiserations,” says Auguste.