Just outside the southern wall of the palace complex was an alleyway containing a brothel where Auguste - seventeen, desperate, and surrounded by gorgeous, untouchable women and available, untempting men - had gone once to discover what he was missing. He had never gone back (the older he had gotten, the more cognizant he'd been of the risk, and the kind of sex he wanted removed from the kind of relationship he wanted was not enough to be worth it), but he remembered the way over the wall and out of the palace, and, more importantly, the way back in. He was not quite as nimble as he had been as a boy, but there was greater strength in his arms and his fingers, and he could support his weight with the shallowest divots in the smooth face of the wall until he reached the carvings and decorative elements that allowed him to pull himself onto the roof. Then over to the courtyard of the training area in his own quarters, a quick scramble down the collapsed pillar that served him as a ladder, straighten up, set his shoulders, and set off, hoping that his borrowed guard's uniform and two weeks' growth of beard would be enough to conceal his identity. He slipped into a nearby arms room to grab a steel practice blade to complete his disguise, then strode into the corridors like he belonged there and made for his brother's room.
Around him, the normal sounds of palace life were muffled - the customary entertainments would be suspended, and the jewel-bright pets would be wearing subdued shades of black and gray, like their masters, as the nation mourned its young prince who had been thrown from his horse in battle with Vaskian raiders and flung into a ravine. They had just, Auguste had learned as he entered the city, given up hopes of finding his body, as repeated searches up and down the river that had cut the ravine into the mountains had failed. Not finding a body had not given anyone serious hopes that the prince might be still alive after all this time - if he was, surely he would have announced himself and come home by now. Tomorrow, they would bury an empty coffin, and carry Auguste's standard through the streets for public mourning.
Auguste wished that it had been Vaskian raiders, up on that ridge. Then he either would have met an honorable death in fair combat, or he would be home by now, telling his father and brother about the campaign, perhaps exaggerating the dangers a little for the sake of Laurent's wide eyes. Instead, the attack had come from his own men. He remembered the shock of it: Vaskian weapons coming out of concealment; his loyal friends being cut down; the sickening realization of betrayal. There had been too many to fight through, and no way to clear a safe path down. Auguste had fought, cutting down men whom an hour ago he would have shed blood to protect, already resigned to dying on this hillside - then a glimpse of rushing water below as his horse reared and brought him crashing down on his opponent; the last of his friends being cut down; the shying of his horse as it tried to avoid the body flung beneath its hooves; and Auguste's sudden decision to use the momentum to fling himself as far out over the ravine as he could. It had not been easy to launch from a seated position like that, and there was fire in every pull of his muscles as he threw himself from the saddle. But when he had plummeted through the open air, he found he had made it far enough to land in deep water. Then Auguste had only to figure out what to do next.
The prince of the morning would have gone to the nearest keep and demanded aid. But Auguste had been betrayed, and had no notion of who could have been behind it. Auguste was an honest man who trusted others to be straightforward with him, and as far as he knew, he had no open enemies. The thought that someone was out there who secretly wished him ill had made him paranoid, and he trusted no one outside his own family. So instead of making for his father's nearest vassal, he had sought help from the nearest peasants, reasoning that they were too far below him to have any motive to move against him. The starburst meant something here on the border, and when he had shown them his regalia and explained the bare bones of the situation, the family had given him their promise of secrecy, spare clothes to disguise him, food for the journey, and (with glowing pride) the family donkey, to carry him back to the city. Wrapped in the love and generosity of his people, Auguste had felt something broken in him begin to heal again.
The donkey had carried him no more swiftly than he could have walked, but it hid his soldier's gait and completed his disguise. Letting himself slump upon it like a sack of potatoes, he had only been recognized once, during his fortnight's slow journey back to the capital. Just inside the city gates, woman passing him on the street had looked into his face, gasped, and then motioned for him to follow her, taking him back to her townhouse. She, too, had been a blessing: giving him more food, letting him use her bath, promising to hold the donkey until he could arrange for its safe return, and presenting him with the spare uniform of her son, who, she had told him proudly, was a member of the king's guard. ("That's how I knew your face; we always watch for him on the parades.") The loyalty and honor of those who had never met him had brought him safely back to his own home, and now he was prepared to deal with the betrayal of whoever it was who lacked those qualities.
He would go to his uncle. Auguste had no instinct for deception, and found it difficult to recognize in others. He would never be able to discover his enemy on his own. But Uncle was a fine man - straightforward and honorable in his own dealings, yet possessed of a twisty mind, capable of understanding and anticipating deceit. Uncle would know who would benefit from seeing Auguste dead at the border and who had the power and influence to turn Auguste's own soldiers against him. Together, they could figure out who this unseen enemy was and develop a plan. They would lay their trap and bait the hounds, and bring the fight into the open, where Auguste could defeat them with honest skill and good steel. It was paramount that Auguste reach his uncle in private before he was recognized and word of his survival became known.
But first - first, he had to see Laurent. Not one unnecessary moment could pass with his brother believing him to be dead, especially not with the news that Auguste had heard on the road: that their father, the king, had been so grieved at his eldest son's death that he had suffered a stroke, and now lay abed, his mind wandering and recovery unsure. (And wasn't that suspicious too, said the new voice in his head that tried to make sense of his betrayal, The King and the Crown Prince felled with one swoop? And while hardly a young man, surely their father was not so old that a stroke seemed a natural response to a grief?) He had to see Laurent, to halve his brother's double-grief and share with him the pain and worry about their father, and make sure that Laurent himself had not been hurt in whatever scheme embroiled them. Then he could go to his uncle and make their plans.
There were two of the Prince's Guard standing at the entrance to the corridor that contained his brother's chambers. Both were young and new to him, and one of them very slight: Auguste thought he could take them, but perhaps not without rousing more of the household, and he did not want to risk hurting innocent men. "Message for the prince from the king's healers," he said when they halted him, and he must have sounded believable enough, for they waved him through without further challenge. There were no guards in the corridor itself, not even outside his brother's room - not an unusual thing, in peacetime, and he was grateful that the attack on him had not resulted in increased security even as he planned words on irresponsibility with the head of the palace guard. He was half-way to the door when it started to open, and Auguste ducked out of sight into one of the framed alcoves that lined the hall at regular distances just in time to be unseen as he watched his uncle step out.
He almost called out to him. Almost stepped from his hiding place. Almost rushed to his side and embraced him. But he knew what his uncle was - the whole court did, it was an open secret, and, love his uncle though he did, Auguste already planned to let his uncle know when he was king that he would not tolerate it blindly the way his father did - and a sudden, sick suspicion of what would a man like that would be doing coming out of a twelve-year-old boy's bedchamber at this hour of the night cramped his guts and stayed his hand. No. It was impossible. Surely not - he couldn't - not family. After all, even when he was young, his uncle had never touched him. And his uncle did not move like a man sneaking about on some shameful errand, no furtive glances up and down the hall, but walking straight and sure as a righteous man. Surely he was wrong. Surely their uncle had simply been comforting Laurent, grieving their mutual loss, innocently, in the long hours of the night. What could be more natural? But still ... who would benefit the most, from the king sick and unfit, the grown prince dead, the heir a child who would need a Regent ruling for him for many years still (likely his uncle had already been so named.) And his brother, left alone with no other family than a man of such appetites - his sweet, smart, shy, affectionate, bookish younger brother, who was such a beautiful little boy ...
He did not believe it. He would not believe it. All honor cried against it. He could not be the man he knew himself to be and suspect such things about his family. So he would not suspect it. And yet he would wait until his uncle had made it down the hall and out of sight before he would steal quietly into Laurent's rooms. There he would find the boy asleep, still in his clothes, perhaps on top of the covers, cheeks smeared with tears shed for Auguste's loss, not his own hurt. And, sleeping but fitfully as he always did, he would spring awake easily when Auguste put his hand on Laurent's sleeping shoulder, cry out "You're alive!" with uncomplicated joy, throw himself into his brother's arms and explain, joyfully, that they must let the rest of the family know, Auguste must have just missed their uncle, who sat with him kindly while he wept and must have only left after Laurent finally cried himself to sleep. And then they would go together to their uncle - or better yet, Laurent would send for him, having invented some excuse, he was so clever with those - and the three of them would plan out what to do next to draw out their secret enemy and how to give their father the news without the shock of it making him worse, Laurent clinging to him all the while as though afraid Auguste would disappear if he let go. That was the only thing could possibly happen.
There was a dimly burning oil lamp placed just inside the doorway of Laurent's rooms, leaving the recess to his inner bedchamber deep in shadow but providing enough light for him to move about if he needed something during the night. Auguste picked this up carefully, mindful of the spluttering flame, and carried it steadily through the arched doorway to the bedchamber where he had often carried a much smaller Laurent, worn out from a long day of play. He remembered the pride of being the big brother, strong enough to bear Laurent's weight easily. He'd felt like a giant with that tiny figure in his arms.
Laurent was lying on his side curled into a tight ball, a position he'd favored when he'd been much younger, and a peek of white shirt showed just above the blankets that covered him, with jacket and pants discarded on the floor for the servants to collect in the morning. Auguste deposited the lamp on the small end table by the bed, where was usually kept some water and whatever pile of books the young scholar was working his way through. Tonight it held an empty bottle and two goblets with the residue of dark red wine drying in the bottom. The lamp in its new position threw Laurent's face into sharp relief, and the insides of his lips were stained purple from the wine, as they would not be if it had been properly watered down in consideration of his age. His sleep was heavy with it, and he did not react to the light being cast over the closed lids of his eyes.
Still, a man aiming only to comfort a boy in grief might give him drink of adult strength. "Tonight we will drink to their memories, and mourn our loss in the way of men." A man might do that.
It took Auguste several minutes of heavy breathing to gather the courage to raise the coverings and see what he might find.
There was no blood upon the sheets, nor on the white cloth of the shirt that twisted itself around the boy's limbs. That the greatest of his unacknowledged fears had not occurred staggered his mind with such confused relief that for a moment he did not see the great smears on the sheets that Laurent's body had curled away from, some still glistening and wet, some dried into white streaks. More, he thought, than would come from a boy if he'd given in to some strange grief-stricken impulse to comfort himself with pleasure, or if an adolescent dream had come upon him while he slept. If either of those could have happened in the brief moments between their uncle leaving and Auguste coming in.
Auguste's first furious impulse - to shake his brother awake and demand to know exactly what had happened - he dismissed as causing only further harm, and he turned his face away from the sleeping child and heaved half-sobbing breaths as he struggled to master the combined urges to alternately scream or weep or vomit back what was left of the in his stomach. But he did none of these things, and when he had finally mastered himself, all that remained in the roiling chaos of his mind was, I'm going to kill him.
The thought calmed him at once.
Auguste, steady with purpose and wearing the livery of the King's Guard, walked through the palace corridors as if on an errand of great importance, and no one challenged him. He was less worried about them doing so now than he had been when sneaking from the outer walls to his brother's rooms - he felt the rightness of what he was doing so completely that it shone out of his every feature, and, if stopped, he was sure he could react in no other way than with the precise combination of impatience and slight outrage of any honest man needlessly interrupted in the course of his duties. He was no longer a man deceived and betrayed, not knowing where to turn, but was once again the Golden Prince of his people, undertaking the greatest task he had ever performed for honor and the crown.
With that confidence, he made it easily to uncle's room, giving the red-liveried guards outside the same excuse he had used before:
"Message from the King's physicians to the King's brother," he said, one soldier reporting to another. "A private one," he added, as a shot in the dark, and they both nodded and moved down the hall, apparently already under standing orders to take themselves out of earshot if such a message should arrive. The confirmation of this new suspicion did not surprise or disappoint him. He was learning.
When the guards were out of sight, he conjured a look of worry and fear on his face (it was easy to act, he discovered, when you were feeling all emotions at once; you just allowed yourself to show the one you wanted and suppressed all the rest), and knocked.
"Uncle," he cried when the door swung open (suppress the disgust at the sight of his face, allow the relief that the plan is working), "Uncle. You must help me."
"Auguste! I- We thought you- Inside. Quickly."
As soon as the door was closed, his uncle pulled him into strong hug, just as he had done after his first victory on the sawdust, and when he had brought his troops home from his first successful command, and at a dozen other little triumphs of young manhood. Auguste stiffened in his arms, trembling with the effort of allowing the embrace. His uncle seemed to take it for stress.
"We thought you had been taken from us too soon. But you are alive, and safe here. All will be well now."
He withdrew, and Auguste allowed himself to be ushered into a chair. His uncle poured two goblets of wine, handing one to Auguste and leaning with the other against the opposite wall, his keen eyes on Auguste's face.
"Now," he said, "Tell me how you came here, in disguise, when all the kingdom believes you to be dead."
"I didn't know what else to do," Auguste answered, placing the cup down at his feet and bowing his head, "I-I landed in the river when I fell. The deep part, where I could swim a little. I made my way to the bank, but I didn't dare ask for help. It wasn't Vaskian raiders up on that ridge uncle. It was my own men. They - they turned on me. Someone must have hired them, someone powerful. I can't think who it could be."
"Your own troops?" His uncle's brow wrinkled in surprise. "That is a heavy blow. So you found a way to make your way home in secret?"
"Yes. I thought whoever is behind all this would be more likely to give themselves away if they thought their plan had succeeded."
His uncle nodded. "It was well thought of. Your reputation for honesty and disinclination towards deceit is well known. I would not have expected this from you, and if it surprises even your family, you can be sure it takes our enemy unawares. We will ferret him out, together. You did right coming to me first."
"Well, almost first," said Auguste, raising his eyes, "I went to Laurent first, to tell him I was still alive. Do you mind telling me, Uncle, what you were doing coming out of his rooms so late?"
He did not believe in his uncle's innocence. There was no part of him that held any shred of hope for it. Or so he would have said, until that very moment, when his uncle grimaced as though acknowledging a hit, and the last wisp of something unacknowledged died within him.
"Ah," said his uncle, "That was not part of the plan, at first. I intended to take him to Chastillon with me, after the funeral, to distract his grief with the diversion of the hunt. But who can resist, when a boy like that asks you to stay with him? 'Please, don't leave me alone, Uncle.' He begged so prettily. Really, what would you have done?"
His uncle's eyes did not seem to be darting about as he spoke, but he angled his head towards Auguste in such a way that he could take in the entire room, and Auguste could tell that he was playing for time, drawing up his tactics. Let him. Auguste had planned this out already as he walked down the hall, and he could see how this was going to end.
"What I would have done," said Auguste, calmly, "Concerns you much less than what I am going to do."
His uncle threw the wine goblet at his face - a coward's move, but one Auguste anticipated, and it clattered safely to the floor as he drew his sword and knocked it away. In that time, his uncle had fetched his sword from where it lay on top of his chest of arms, and was on him.
His uncle meant to take tactical advantage of their positions - Auguste, seated, and himself, bearing down from above. But Auguste was no stranger to combat strategy either, and it was not by accident that he had let himself be led to a chair. He had his own ideas about how his uncle, experienced boar hunter, would respond to a threat from below, and he surged forward to meet his uncle's attack not into a stance, but a crouch.
It only happened for a second - his uncle's body, well-trained, instinctively moved into a form that would have served him well with a hunting spear, but not with the short sword he had taken. He realized what had happened almost immediately, was already moving to correct his mistake, but too late - Auguste lunged upwards, the weight of his body behind his sword, from under his uncle's guard and the blade thrust below his ribs and angled up into his lungs.
The tip of his uncle's blade pierced Auguste's shoulder, but pinned as he was, he could get no leverage to drive in the blow. His uncle dropped the sword and wheezed around the blade.
"You were dead," Auguste said, "From the moment you touched him. But if there is any honor or family feeling left in you, use your last breaths to tell me what drug you gave to my father, so the physicians may do what they can for him."
"He- enjoyed- it," his uncle managed in wet, burbling gasps, "Think of that - when you look - at h~"
The last word ended in a gurgle of blood from his mouth, and Auguste pulled his sword free and let the last of his uncle's life spill out over the floor.
That was it. Over in moments.
It was only then, staring at his uncle's still-twitching corpse, that Auguste realized he had not the faintest idea what to do next. He could sneak his way back out of the palace, find a place to shave his face, return under his own identity and pretend to be as surprised as anyone that his father's brother lay dead on the floor of his rooms. But there was blood now on his borrowed uniform, and the wound to his shoulder would make it difficult to climb. He was still thinking it over when a knock came at the door.
"Sir?" called a voice from the door, "Sorry to trouble you, but a pet was passing by just now, says he heard a struggle." The voice sounded dubious. "Are you all right?"
"All is well," he tried calling back, in a gruffer tone than his usual voice.
"I don't think that was the Regent's voice," said a second man, after a pause.
Auguste sighed. He really had no head for this.
"All is well," he repeated, opening the door and surrendering his sword, "But you must take me before the Council. I am Crown Prince Auguste, and I have killed my uncle."
"It was a duel of honor," Auguste insisted, "We were both armed."
"A duel of honor at that time of night, without witnesses, in the Regent's private rooms?" asked Councillor Guion doubtfully. He had just taken over the seat from his father, and his eagerness to prove himself to his colleagues was pushing him to an active role in the great matter of the prince's trial. His fellow councillors murmured in dubious assent, and Guion flushed with poorly suppressed pride. In the front of the room, the throne, the seat of judgement where Auguste's father should be sitting, remained vacant.
"It must have been a grave dishonor indeed to prompt such an unusual challenge," prompted Councillor Audin.
"What was it?"
"So grave a dishonor that it cannot be spoken aloud, even here, without bringing further shame upon the royal family." Auguste had had several hours confined to a luxurious but secure state room in the early hours of the morning to decide what he was going to say when he was brought before the Council at dawn. There had been very little to think about; he was not willing to risk damage to Laurent's reputation for a crime that was all his uncle's, nor was he willing to lie under oath. This limited his options severely.
"But if you will not tell the Council what the dishonor was," Councillor Jeurre put in, "How are we to judge whether your murderous attack on your uncle was truly justified?"
"The Council knows my character. Since my coming of age, you have had proofs of my judgement, and my sense of honor. You have only to decide whether or not these are sufficient for you to trust that my word is true and my actions were just."
"The prince would do well to remember that we knew the character of your uncle, too."
"I thought I did too, until last night."
"You said earlier that the attack upon you at the border was not a random skirmish, but treachery by your own men," Councillor Herode spoke for the first time, "You did not know this at the time, but one of the men from your personal guard had come to me just after the news reached us with similar suspicions. He spoke of last minute roster changes, filling your troop with strangers. He that the few men he did know and trust numbered among the dead. He believed, as do I, that such intimate scheming could not have been managed with foreign gold alone, but showed the hand of someone highly placed in Vere itself."
Surprised mutterings went up from the Council around him as Herode kept his eyes fixed on Auguste.
"Did you believe that your uncle was responsible for the attempt made on your life at the border?"
"Have you any proof of it?"
"Was this the dishonor you spoke of?"
"No, that was ... something worse."
"They have to believe you," Laurent said, as they waited for the Council to return and render its decision. Laurent had come running into the throne room early in the proceedings, shouting, "It's not true!" and having to tell Laurent that no, Auguste had done exactly what they said he'd done and watch his face crumple had been the most difficult part of the entire trial. Laurent had been allowed to sit beside Herode for the rest of it, as long as he kept quiet, and Auguste had struggled to keep his eyes on the Council members who were questioning him instead of watching his brother for reactions. When they had withdrawn to discuss their ruling in private, Laurent had stayed with him.
"You are the most honorable man in Vere," Laurent continued, "Probably in the whole world. Everybody knows that."
"I think not everyone has the faith in me that you do, little brother."
"They should," said Laurent, stubbornly, "Although I wish that you had told them something, even if it hadn't been the real reason. I suppose you are too good and honest for that."
There was a heavy silence as Laurent looked uncertainly at Auguste, and he could hear the unspoken question Why did you really do it? hanging in the air between them. For a moment, Auguste felt the first real fear since he'd pulled back the sheets fall over him, as he realized he did not know how to answer such a question from Laurent, whether the truth or silence would do him more harm. But, perhaps fearing Auguste's answer, Laurent let the moment pass.
"Have they told you about Father yet?" he asked instead, "He's - not doing well. I don't think he's recognized me, all the times I've gone to visit. We'll have to go together after they're done with you, maybe you'll get a better reaction. He's known you longer."
"Tell me about Father's condition. And the other things I missed on the road."
It was not good. The seizure that had taken the king on hearing of his son's death had left him paralyzed over much of his body and half his face. He could not walk, nor rise from his bed without assistance. His speech was garbled and unintelligible, when he tried to speak at all. It was difficult to tell with communication thus hindered, but the king seemed to be in confusion most of the time, and did not seem to know where he was, or who the people were around him. Laurent, however, thought there had been some small improvement: he attempted to help now when the servants fed him, and the last time Laurent had visited together with their uncle, the king had seemed to recognize his brother, if not his son.
Auguste was just starting to question Laurent about the physicians who had been placed in charge of his father and what they were attempting to do when the Council swept back into the room. Auguste stood.
"Prince Auguste," Herode began, "You have asked the Council to put a great deal of faith in you and in your judgement. Before we render our decision, I beseech you, one last time, to show us the same faith that you asked for, and tell us what we need to know to judge with full understanding."
"I am sorry. I cannot say any more than I have already said."
Councillor Herode sighed, and sat back down.
"If the prince remains obdurate, than the Council must abide by the decision it has already made, with the limited information that it has," said Councillor Guion. Councillor Audin rose, nodding.
"A duel of honor is no crime, but a duel of honor should be offered in public and fought in front of witnesses. It may be possible to forgo these codes in the most extreme provocation, but as the prince refuses to explain his conduct, this Council has no choice but to find him guilty of the murder of his uncle."
"No!" Laurent shouted, jumping up from his chair, "You can't do that! You stupid old men, of course he's telling the truth! Do you know how easy it would have been been to come up with a lie that would satisfy you? He could have said anything! The only reason he could possibly have for telling you that Uncle did something too horrible to be repeated is because it is true!"
"Prince Laurent, sit down."
"You idiots, you-"
"Silence, or you will be sent from this court before hearing the sentencing."
Laurent sank back, ashen-faced.
"The punishment for the wrongful slaying of a kinsman should be death," Councillor Audin continued, "However, in recognition of the prince's great and heroic service to his country, both on the field of battle and in times of peace, we instead remove Crown Prince Auguste from the succession. All his lands and titles revert to his brother Laurent, now Crown Prince of Vere. As for the person of Auguste himself, we hereby banish you from the kingdom of Vere."
Laurent was out of out of his seat again.
"No, you can't! You can't send him away, he's all I have left-"
"The Crown Prince is too young to be present at these proceedings," Councillor Herode pronounced with heavy patience, "He should return to the schoolroom."
The guard that he nodded at moved forward to take the prince's arm, but Laurent, in a fit of pique such as he had outgrown some time ago, kicked the man's shin and wrenched his arm away, then fled from the room.
"Auguste," Councillor Audin continued, the name awkwardly familiar in his mouth without the title that should accompany it, "We will give you the morning to pack, and say goodbye to your father and anyone else you feel the need to. You may take with you one horse from your stable, along with riding gear, and as many of your personal possessions as it can carry. This afternoon, you start for the border at a place of your choosing, under armed guard. They will turn back when you have crossed the border. Once past it, we give you neither soldiers for your protection nor servants for your comfort, though if any of your own people choose to accompany you into exile, we will not hinder them."
"The Council's decision is generous, given the circumstances. I thank you," Auguste said, "I - I have reason to believe that my uncle's treachery included the poisoning of my father, and that his illness is not natural. Please make sure that the royal physicians are informed."
"That, we shall certainly do."
"It is not too late," said Councillor Guion, "To think better of this course and come clean with us. Any new information you can give would of course cause us to revisit the choices we have made."
Auguste bowed wordlessly and left.
"What have you done to your hair, little brother?" asked Auguste.
It was afternoon. Auguste had said his goodbyes to his friends at court, sat for over an hour in the sickroom of his father hoping that the king heard and understood at least a little of what was said to him, gently dismissed those among his servants and guards who wanted to come with him ("I would not have any man give up his place at court for the privations of a life in exile, no matter how willing"), and gathered what little he wanted from his rooms. His brother had been by his side for all of it, and they had had both their clingy personal goodbyes in private and the dignified formal ones before the court as Auguste was officially dismissed. He was now in the courtyard where his horse was being saddled and the guards who were to escort him to the border mustered, and he spoke to a boy in page's livery, trying to go unnoticed at the back of the crowd. A scarf covered his nose and mouth, despite a distinct lack of chill in the air, and his uncovered hair was a dull mouse-brown with curiously uneven streaks to it.
"I don't know why you should call me that, sir, I am only a very faithful page who-"
"But I'm not Laurent! I'm-"
"Please let me come with you," Laurent begged, dropping the pretense, "Please. Don't leave me alone here."
"You know I can't," Auguste said as gently as he could
"Yes you can! I'm in disguise, no one would know!"
"It will be less than an hour before you are missed, and then everyone will know."
"Longer than that. No one cares about me except you, and you'll be gone. And by the time they do notice I'm missing, we'll probably be over the border and then no one can stop us. Please, I won't be much trouble!"
"I would give anything to have you with me, Laurent, but you cannot go. You are the only prince Vere has left now, your duty is to our people."
"How can I have any duties when I'm too young for them to let me do anything!" Laurent was crying now. "Father's sick, and the people only want you, and I don't care about the stupid Council, just let me stay with you! Auguste, please!"
"I love you, but you cannot come with me."
"Then you're lying. You don't care about me at all!"
"I hate you!" Laurent cried. Then he turned and ran back into the palace.
Auguste breathed deeply.
"Mount up," he said to the men, "We make for the border into Patras."
Thundering hoofbeats on the road ahead halted the party slightly more than an hour into their ride from the palace. They moved to the side of the rode to let the rider pass, and when he came into view around a curve in the path, it was Laurent, back in his own clothes and riding the light mare he had been given after he graduated from ponies.
"How did he come to be on the road ahead of us?" asked the guard next to him.
"He must have cut straight through the woodlands to the next crossroads and circled back around to us," Auguste explained.
"The prince can ride like that?" the man asked doubtfully, clearly remembering Laurent's reputation as a bookish lad no good at soldierly pursuits.
"Yes. The prince can ride like that."
Auguste dismounted and walked to meet his brother.
"I don't hate you," Laurent said, "I'm mad at you for leaving me and for not letting me come with you and for refusing to lie to the Council so you could stay, but I don't hate you. I'm sorry I said that."
"I know you don't."
"I didn't want that to be the last thing I said to you."
"Last thing you said to me? Were you intending not to write me back?"
Laurent's eyes lit up. "They did not say you could not write!"
"No, they didn't, and I most certainly will."
"That'll be good," said Laurent, sounding relieved, "And it won't be forever, you know. Father will get better and overrule them. And if he doesn't, then when I'm old enough, I'll make them let you come back."
"Who have they put in charge in the meantime?"
"They've decided to have a Council of Regents," Laurent said, making a face, "They're each going to be Regent for a year and then trade off. When I left, they were drawing lots to see what the order will be."
"They will not be happy to give up that power, when the time comes."
"They won't have a choice, though, will they?"
"My lord," one of his own men said apologetically, "We really should get moving again if we want to make good time for the border."
"I can ride with you for a bit," said Laurent, "Then I can turn and get back to the palace before dark. I'm very fast."
"One hour," Auguste conceded. He looked towards the men around him. His own men, he had refused to allow to accompany him, knowing that to avoid being tainted with his dishonor, they must distance themselves from him as soon as possible and quickly take up duties with other masters or with the families they had left behind. Still, there was someone that he knew here among the guards, a soldier from the regular army he had picked out for advancement. He had no idea if this man was trustworthy or not; still, he remembered the instant, unquestioning help he had received from the peasants on the way here, and hoped that it would be safe to guess that this one at least had not lately been on the payroll of his uncle. "You will escort the prince back to the palace at the end of that time, and see that he arrives safely."
The soldier bowed.
"It will be good for the people to see us together when we ride," Laurent said, as they turned their horses and continued together, "They are not happy about you being sent off. When they come to cheer you, I want them to see that I'm not happy about it too."
"But won't they just think that I'm riding with a very loyal page boy?"
"Will that stuff wash off? Or will you be Prince Laurent the Mouse-haired from now on?"
"Stop it!" Laurent laughed, and they rode towards the future together.