Rather than endure twisting a locked door in front of Veretian guards, Damen went straight to his own room. The adjoining door was locked, too. But Laurent would have seen the twist of the handle, heard the creak of a rarely used mechanism. If Ulbrecht was the host he thought he was, he really should have made movement in and out of the royal quarters more discreet. Damen was ready to break the door down when he caught himself. Laurent knew he was there.
Unless Laurent hadn't heard it the door handle.
Unless he was truly occupied.
He was a lonely sixteen year old. It wouldn't be so strange to that he would want companionship. Someone to untie his Veretian laces. Someone to put out the fires in his mind.
Except Laurent's mind never stopped. And his voice drifted in through the shutters in rapid fire Veretian.
“I'll throw you off that balcony,” Laurent said. “Do you think anyone but your hero complex master would miss an untrained slave? You're nothing. You're worth nothing.”
Damen went out to the balcony. He didn't stop to think, to judge – he jumped across the empty space, the long way down, and landed squarely beside Laurent. Let him go, he should have said, but instead he grabbed Laurent's scrawny shoulder and shoved him back against the wall. A swash of white-wash paint dirtied his blue jacket.
“What do you think you're doing?” Damen said, too wound up to keep his voice down. Laurent would not be killing anyone on his watch.
“Oh, calm down. He's a slave from Vere. My uncle won't care. You father won't care.”
Xavier was trembling as the sea wind whipped the beauty from his flimsy garments and made them into something pathetic.
“Laurent, this is not why I took you from the palace. Calm down.”
“No, you needed me out of the way so your father could play nice with my brother's killer. I'm not stupid.”
“Makedon didn't kill your brother.”
“His men did,” Laurent said. “You were there. I'm meant to be the prince and this one won't even answer my questions. All I want is news of Vere that has been filtered through ten different palace officials before it reaches my desk.”
“Xavier, answer his questions,” Damen said. It simply wasn't acceptable for a slave to make those kinds of refusals to his betters. No-one could refuse a prince.
“There is talk, your highness,” Xavier said, voice shaking, accent thick. “Among the courtiers in Vere. About the late Prince Auguste and --”
“They're saying he ordered the fires,” Laurent interrupted.
“Oh.” Auguste was long dead when the fires were lit. It wasn't infeasible to think he had given the orders before his death. From a political standpoint, it even made sense. Give the late prince credit for the last winning strike against the Akielon invaders. Give him that glory and give the Regent a clean slate to start again on Laurent's behalf. “Well. That's not the worst thing in the world.”
“He wouldn't have hurt slaves like that,” Laurent said. There was still an edge to his voice and a sharpness to his posture that reminded Damen of a snake about to strike.
“When you are king you can clear his name,” Damen said. “Xavier, is that all?”
“Exalted, this one doesn't feel --”
“Cut the act,” Laurent said. “You were a pet. We both know you have know problem spewing dirty words and opinions.”
Xavier raised his head. “They are saying that the plan to send Prince Laurent to Akielos was already in place before his brother's death. They say Laurent had an....inappropriate attachment to his older brother. That it disgusted the late prince and --”
Damen flung his hand out. Not to hurt the slave but to impede the impact of Laurent's blow. He was fast and vicious but he could not get past the thick muscle of Damen's arm or the sure-footed stance that kept Laurent from doing permanent damage to the slave boy.
“Do not,” Damen spat, without looking at Xavier. “Insult the good name of Prince Laurent with those baseless accusations.”
“I'm just repeating what I heard.”
“Don't do that either,” Damen said. “Shut your mouth and remember your place or your master will hear about your disobedience.” Xavier went to his knees. Damen stared and the slave pressed his forehead to the tiled floor.
“I --” Laurent began. “I never--”
“Go inside,” Damen said. He was only a little surprised when Laurent hopped over to Damen's balcony instead of walking back into his own room. “Don't you move,” he said to Xavier, and left him outside. That's what Theomedes would do. No-one, not even a pet, would speak like that in front of Theomedes.
Figuring Laurent needed a moment, Damen went through Laurent's room and opened the door. He stepped into the hall and when Jord and Lazar snapped to attention, Damen leaned against the wall.
“Protecting his purity as well as everything else now,” Lazar said.
“Watch your mouth, soldier,” Damen said, but he didn't have the energy to put any threat behind it. “That slave was a pet once, in case you couldn't tell.”
“What a step down.”
“How so?” Damen demanded.
“Well, aside from the obvious,” Lazar said. “A pet like that wouldn't be long earning enough to buy out his contract. There's no way out of slavery.”
“Do you know of these rumours in Vere?” Damen asked.
“About the prince. There are too many to keep count,” Lazar said. “But I can imagine the one that would have him hiding.”
“Take the slave elsewhere,” Damen said. “Discreetly.”
Xavier looked so pathetically grateful to be lead away that Damen had to turn his head.
“Jord,” Damen said, when it was just the two of them in the corridor. “It's been a while.”
“I don't do as many nights now.”
“You knew Prince Auguste,” Damen said. “What --”
“Forgive me interrupting, your highness,” Jord said. “But I served under Auguste and he was the best man I've ever known. You'd look at him and know he was destined to do great things.”
Damen wondered if anyone ever looked at him and felt like that. They probably thought he was destined to break things.
Jord continued, “He was devoted to his brother. That's why I volunteered to be his guard. Those two loved each other. There was nothing but honest love.”
“I know,” Damen said. He pushed himself away from the wall and went back to his room. On a reclining couch, Laurent sat straight-backed with his knees pulled up to his chest. It was a warm night but he was still shivering. Quietly as he could, Damen secured all the doors and when he couldn't find a suitable blanket because there was really no need for blankets in the southernmost tip of Akielos, he draped one of his short red cloaks around Laurent's shoulders.
“Auguste would --” He let out a bitter breath of a laugh. “I was going to say Auguste would die if he saw me with Prince Damianos's cloak around my shoulders.”
“I doubt he had ever reason to think about that.” Damen sat on the edge of the couch.
“He thought about you. He followed your rise to become the star of the Akielon army. Damianos, undefeated in every game, leading campaigns at seventeen, jewel in his father's iron crown,” Laurent said. “Look, what Xavier said ---”
“There's no need.”
“Auguste would never. I was a boy. That would be incest.”
“Laurent, I know.”
“I used to sneak into his rooms when I was a child,” Laurent said. “Five, six, seven. I don't know. He always looked after me. Listened to my fairy stories and flights of fancy. Maybe I --”
“I think,” Damen said. “You were very lucky to have had a brother who cared so much about you. We were both at the stream -”
“Well, you would think I was lucky. Your brother is Kastor.”
Damen laughed a little and he watched Laurent slide back into the version of himself Laurent was comfortable with. “I never did sneak into Kastor's rooms. He actually would have thrown me from the balcony. I did sneak up on him once in my father's rooms. He was trying on his crown.”
“Is that allowed?”
“No but honestly, I think even the servants try it on. My father has little use for ornamentation. I think he gave me the lion pin just so he didn't have to wear it.”
“Once --” Laurent said and stopped himself.
“Tell me what's the most embarrassing thing you ever saw Auguste do,” Damen said.
“Nothing. He was the heir to the throne.”
“Everyone does stupid shit,” Damen said, leaning back on his elbows. “Dance around naked. Examine their moustache in the mirror. Sing bad songs at the top of their voice.”
Laurent laughed earnestly now. Which was, of course, Damen's intention.
“He used to watch the court ladies, I think. From his window. I didn't know then. I thought he just liked the gardens.”
“Everyone watches women. Even you.”
“I don't watch women,” Laurent said. “Sometimes I am simply overwhelmed by the amount of flesh you primitive people put on display. Anyway, it's different in Vere. You're only allowed to fuck the woman you marry. Auguste...I don't know. I wasn't watching. But it must have been difficult for him. He could have anything he wanted but that one thing.”
“Someone should tell you people that there are ways of preventing pregnancy.”
“I know there are.” Laurent went a little red. “But there can still be seed in --”
“The women here take --” Damen didn't actually know what they took. “A medicine. And there's a chart. I don't know. But think about it, you don't see any pregnant slaves.”
Laurent blinked three slow blinks. “I thought --”
“In Vere, if an un-married woman gets pregnant and the father won't do the right thing people make sure there is no baby.” He looked down at the toe of his boots. “I bet you are thinking now about all the times I called your barbaric.”
“No, I'm not thinking about that,” Damen said. He straightened and began to untie his sandal. Laurent put his feet on the ground.
“I should --”
“You don't have to,” Damen said. But Laurent left, quietly, embarrassed still. He also left the adjoining door open.
In the morning, they went down to the customs house. This was the part of the plan Damen did not think through. There was no reason on earth why the Prince of Vere would accompany him on official business, yet here Laurent was behaving like nothing at all hadn't come within a hair's breadth of killing a slave boy the night before.
Still flanked by an unnecessarily large contingent of guards, making gnarled fishermen and rowdy fishwives bow just because he existed, Damen decided the Prince of Akielos did not need to justify his decisions to anyone. Laurent, wide-eyed, wove though the busy dock with none of the cool arrogance he usually displayed. The energy suited him. He sampled a mussel. He admired a tall ship, a pleasure yacht and an old dockhand's risque tattoos. He gave Damen a sly, sidelong glance, when Damen caught him looking at the overflowing bust of a daytime whore. He even produced one of his little wooden toys from his coat and tossed it to a barefoot boy stealing oranges from a bushel.
“If you want to explore, a guard can escort you,” Damen offered. This was meant to be a holiday of sorts. No-one had expressly told him not to let Laurent out of his sights.
“I don't think Theomedes would approve,” Laurent replied. “Anyway, I want to see what you do when you're not in the palace.”
“Mostly, I command armies.”
“I've seen that. You weren't so impressive.”
A clerk showed Damen through to the custom-master's office. “Great,” said Damen. An office.He had not considered this aspect of the task. There was a smuggler to be caught and he meant to catch him in person. With guards perhaps, maybe even through the use of an informant. He had made contacts the last time he was here.
He had not been expecting to come to face to face with his real nemesis – paperwork. That was for clerks and advisers. He was there to command and fight.
“You hardly expect me to go through all that?” Damen said to the clerk.
“No, Exalted,” the clerk said, rushed. “We have. Your father's men have. It's just...we can't find anything.”
“Perhaps the mind of the prince might offer some illumination,” Laurent said. Damen gave him a look.
“Right,” Damen said. “That will be all.”
Damen ignored the paperwork and called for the waiting harbour police and customs officers.
“Can I look?” Laurent asked, standing on his tiptoes to peer out the high windows.
“The sky is there for everyone.”
“I mean at the papers,” he said.
Damen hesitated. Chances were, Theomedes would not let a foreign prince rifle through official paperwork. There wasn't anything sensitive in the comings and goings of the merchant docks. Anything regarding the crown or the army had its own protocols. The clerk would probably raise an eyebrow. He had raised both at the sight of Laurent but, the again, Laurent did have that effect on people.
“Why not?” Damen said. “You're good at seeing patterns.”
“Am I?” Laurent made himself very comfortable on the customs-master's chair. “How do you figure?”
“Puzzles. Fashion. You have an analytical mind.” Damen pushed open the window, then. The room was hot. Laurent was going red. He spread out a map on a low coffee table and began instructing the local watchmen. They needed to step up their patrols. They needed to make sure the hauliers were not planting anything or taking bribes. Basically, they needed to do their jobs better and Prince Damianos's presence was the guarantee that would make that happen.
It took hours. The thing about a massive docklands was that there were so many places to hide. The men stressed this to Damen. He stressed right back that it was their duty to eliminate them.
“Where is the guard Andries?” Damen asked. The man who had greeted him the night before seemed like a reasonable sort.
“He works nights, mostly, Exalted. Prime crime time, really.”
“Right,” said Damen. “Then why don't your plans reflect that?”
It took until late afternoon to get anything that resembled a logical strategy. If these men were soldiers, their camps would be open season for enemies. Which is why, perhaps, they eked out a living down here instead.
“Take over,” Damen said, to his head guard. “Have someone in office prepare lunch for me and the Prince of Vere,” he said to his most junior guard. “Supervise. We'll take it outside.”
The fresh air made Damen feel like himself again. It made Laurent squint and wrinkle his nose. Considering the short notice, the clerks had prepared a nice spread in a small shaded area at the side of the building. Or, more likely, they had ten different options ready depending on what Prince Damianos would choose.
“What do you think of Akielon record-keeping?” Damen asked Laurent.
“The records are neat but some of the hand-writing is atrocious.”
“Do you see anything?”
“Nothing absolute, yet.” Laurent spread some soft cheese onto a piece of dried bread and popped a grape on top before eating it. “But I am sure there is something there.”
“There's something everywhere.”
Damen sat with his back to the docklands. The area was cleared, of course, and people couldn't just wander up to the customs house for no reason. They wouldn't get past the guard. But people still had official business – paying charges and applying for licenses – regardless of whether or not the prince was in town. People looked. Such was the life of a prince. He preferred not to notice. Or for Laurent not to have his back to that many Akielons.
“Sickening,” he heard a woman say in Patran. There was no love between Vere and Patras and Damen was considering how long he would let this go on before he had his guard remove her. “That they can sit there, stuffing their faces, while people starve. Imagine the luxury of clicking your fingers and -”
Damen clicked his fingers. His guard escorted the woman away. He didn't know why he felt so hot, or why he had to put down his food. “Do you speak Patran?” he asked Laurent.
“Enough,” Laurent said. “You seem very shocked for one who spends so much time on the road.”
“No-one in Akielos would speak like that of me,” he said. “Present company excluded.”
The first day proved fruitless. Never mind. These things take time. Damen was just relieved that there was no guests at Ulbrechts house for the evening and he could use that garden space to practise with his sword. When he was a boy, Haemon his trainer used to make him practise daily so he would not lose his touch, so the movements would become as natural to his body as putting one foot in front of the other to walk. Damen never lost that habit, even now when it would have no detrimental effect on his skill.
Laurent had insisted on going down to the stables, accompanied by Jord and one of Damen's guards. Damen didn't particularly think he was going to run off but it was protocol. Also Jord had good Akielon and Laurent was quite fluent but he didn't think either of them spoke the kind of rough challenging language that was prevalent around the docks.
While he practised, he felt a familiar sensation on the back of his neck and turned around expecting to ask Laurent while he had returned so early. But it was not Laurent. He had gained an audience of Lord and Lady Ulbrecht, two of their household staff, and the officer called Andries. They all bowed. Damen caught a tiny look of amusement pass of his own guard's face.
“Forgive me, Exalted,” Ulbrecht said. “We found this officer waiting for you on the street. I did not know you were busy.”
“It's fine.” Damen passed his sword to his squire and wiped his face dry. “I will hear this officer's business alone,” he said.
“It is nothing urgent, Exalted,” Andries said as the garden emptied. “I just wanted you to know that we are already implementing your new policies at once. We've already apprehended five thieves.”
“But no smugglers,” Damen said, drinking down some water.
“Not yet.” Andries lowered his head. Damen felt a little guilty. The man clearly took his duty seriously and Damen should not have scolded him for not achieving instant success. He noticed him glance at the sword again.
“Do you spar?” Damen asked. It was a great honour for men to lose to him.
“Not anymore.” Andries took his hand from inside his cloak and to show he was missing two fingers. “I was in the army, briefly, Exalted. I am no shirker.”
“Were you in Delpha?” Damen asked, quietly.
“Supply lines out of Sicyon port, sir. I was young and I wasn't very good.”
“You could have continued that kind of duty afterwards,” Damen said. If the army turned its back on every healthy young man with a minor injury, they would soon run out of soldiers.
“I liked the sea air,” Andries said, a little balefully.
“It is something,” Damen said. “And of course, the crown values your service here too.”
“I'm finishing early tonight,” Andries said. Damen caught a taste of something in the words. Not an invitation. No-one would be that bold. But potential. “So I will be present at the docks and offices tomorrow if you should require my services.”
“Right,” said Damen. “Dismissed, officer.”
The following day, he and Laurent went down to the offices and did it all over again. Laurent combed through the papers, making notes and getting ink on his fingers, while Damen heard police reports and witness reports and suggestions from the officers on where to increase surveillance.
There was a lot of talking.
Damen glanced Laurent's way a couple of times. He gave no indication he was paying attention. Damen figured he was happy to let people think he couldn't understand them very well.
When Andries came, Damen walked down to the intake room with him, so he could see the procedure for all the items that came through without a courier. Sometimes, Andries explained, smugglers would send something small like a banned drug through as a kind of test to see if the officers would detect it. He looked down at the ground when he had to mention a drug. It was endearing.
Then he went back to work and there were more clerks in the office. Laurent opened his mouth a couple of times, like he wanted to say something, but was too proud to speak among all these lesser people.
Damen was just about to bid them all leave and send for lunch, when a red-faced young officer burst into the office.
“Exalted,” he said, breathless. “They have caught someone. They have caught a smuggler.”
Damen didn't doubt that this was anything more than an effort by the local guards to prove they weren't completely incompetent but he stood up all the same. He could do them the respect of witnessing their work. Theomedes wouldn't want him to be holed up in a stuff office when he could be out among the people, laying down the law.
He strapped on his sword, pulled on his cloak, and looked at Laurent who still had his brows furrowed behind the large desk. “Come on, then,” he said. Then to Jord, “Keep him back.” It would not do for the Akielon people to get any kind of impression that the Veretian prince was doling out any kind of justice here.
There was a large yard in front of the customs house, despite the fact that plots of land were at a premium this close to the docks. It was mostly kept empty. Today, under the blazing sun, quite a crowd had gathered – mostly guards and officials, along with a few workers who had gotten swept along in the tide of an arrest. In the centre of the crowd, there was a woman on a small platform. She wore a headscarf that was probably white once but now had the colour of a dirty stone. It had come undone, with the tight press of swords to her neck.
“What is happening?” Damen asked, as the guards bowed and forced anyone who didn't notice his arrival down to their knees.
“Exalted, we have caught this woman in an attempt to defraud the crowm,” said a guard with the mark of seniority on his shoulder.
“In what manner?” Damen sought out Andries, hoping him to be more reasonable, less caught in the triumph of catching someone. It was a good thing these men weren't soldiers. They'd be too busy celebrating every kill to do anything useful.
“Sir, she attempted to pass of a shipment of exotic fruit.” Andries said, looking down a piece of paper. “Bananas, I think they are called, as white onions.”
Damen tried to look serious. He tried not to look at Laurent, who would no doubt be snorting at the seriousness of this particular crime.
“White onions have lower import charges than these bananas,” Damen said.
“Considerably lower, Exalted.”
“And the consequence is...” Damen had no idea. He assumed some fine and a bill for the real taxes. Perhaps the shipment to be confiscated. He wouldn't mind trying some new fruit.
“Death, Exalted. For the crime of stealing from the crown.”
“Death.” Damen looked at the woman, faded and fragile on the wooden platform which, he realised, must be ready and rolled out when such an infringement occurred. Her face was lined. From sun or saltwater or age or stress. He didn't know.
Prince Damianos was here. If someone was going to be put to death for crimes against the crown, then he would have to do it. Damen had killed more times than he could count – in places where people signed up to be killed.
Something about this woman made him think she had only signed up to feed her family.
“Smuggling is a huge issue, Exalted,” Andries said. “It's important to set a strong example.”
“I did not ask for advice,” Damen said, so aware of all the eyes on him.
Laurent wriggled up to his elbow. “It is a smuggler, not the smuggler,” he said in Veretian.
“I'm aware,” Damen said. But that was the crux of it. This was not his mission. He knew that before Laurent spoke. His father would not dally – raise the sword and end the problem. Kastor, too. Probably even Nikandros, though he might feel badly afterwards. And all of a sudden, Damen was wondering what the golden Prince Auguste would have done.
Damen walked towards the woman, hopping up onto her guilty platform in one easy motion. He had a strange urge to fix her headscarf back around her face but kept his hand on his sword instead. This was Akielos. Women could go topless if they wished.
This woman was shaking. Her breaths were so rapid they weren't breaths at all, just impotent gasps of nothing.
“Breathe,” Damen said. “Tell me, do you deny this crime?”
She kept her head down. “My name is on the dockets. There is no denial.”
“Do you have a reason?”
“The crime remains, Exalted,” she said.
“Do you have children?”
“No. He --” She hesitated.
“Speak,” Damen said.
“He fought at Sanpelier. He did not survive.”
“You receive a pension, though.” Damen felt the wrongness of his questions but couldn't hold them back.
Damen looked out at the crowd. He saw Laurent's piercing blue eyes, watching.
“We are merciful,” he announced. “The sentence is commuted. Take her away.”
He felt like he had done something honourable, until one of the market women, pushed forward to get closer to the sobbing woman who was probably her friend. “Don't worry,” she said. “We won't let the mites starve. I'll find --”
“The children will serve the crown as payment for the debt,” Damen interrupted, confusing everyone, who thought it was time for them to leave. “This is my pronouncement.”
He left the guards to their work and the women to their wailing and went back to the cool foyer of the customs house. The official Andries was looking at him with an expression Damen couldn't make out. Laurent was nowhere to be seen.
“Exalted,” Andries said. “The day is nearly over. It would honour the guard if you join us for a toast. It is our custom, excuse the pun, when we catch a criminal.”
Damen would have liked a drink. But he did not need to spend time with common guards to do so.
“If you were catching as many criminals as you should be,” Damen said, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Then I wouldn't be here and you lot would be permanently drunk. I decline but thank you for the offer.”
In the office, Laurent was back behind the desk. The guards were outside.
“Go on,” Damen said. “I can tell you want to say something.”
“It can wait.” Laurent made a note on a sheet. “I have never seen you rule before.”
“Disappointed? What would happen in Vere if someone defrauded the crown?”
“They would be killed. But I am not in Vere.”
“You think I was wrong. No, never mind. I don't care what you think.” Damen sank into one of the cushioned chairs by the window. As he did, he realised these were chairs meant for people waiting to speak to the customs-master. There was Laurent, skinny and young, behind his desk.
“I think you think you did right by those children,” Laurent said. “But you gave them a life sentence, too. They could be older. They could be wiley. There could be a girl who could whore or snag a husband. They could have gone to an orphanage, if they were orphans. They could --”
“Enough,” said Damen. “We're going back to the villa.”
“No. I just missed a chance to swing my sword. Don't annoy me further, your highness.”
“Will you take these papers, please.” Laurent handed Damen a leather folder. “I think blood will pour from the clerk's eyes if I walk out of here with official documents.”
Back at Ulbrecht's, Damen trained in the garden and Laurent went to his room. He listened to the cicadas and in the distance the waves as he went through drill after drill. He was breathing hard and sweating hard by the time he was finished. He meant to bathe but Laurent came into his room, walking in that graceful noiseless way, before he could make use of the water.
“I think I've found something,” Laurent said. “But I'll tell you when you don't resemble a foaming horse.”
“Tell me now.” Damen stepped closer. Laurent stepped back.
“On the balcony,” Laurent said. “Where there's air.”
Damen could tell that Laurent was enjoying having knowledge that Damen did not, so he let him draw it out.
“The view is nice,” Laurent said, with his elbows on the railing.
“You can see the sea from the palace apartments at ho – Ios.”
“You can. My room overlooks a training yard. You can probably see Isthima on a clear day.”
“You spend enough time there. You can see it too.”
“Akielos does not monitor imports and exports from Isthima,” Laurent said.
“We are one country.”
“So shipments that come from Ithisma can pass freely.”
Damen leaned on the railing too. “What is that you know?”
Cargo could come from Isthima under the assumption that duties were paid there. Perhaps a fake seal. Perhaps just plain boldness made it happen. Then, once in Akielos proper, it could change hands and go to the black market. An excellent source of black market goods. Laurent was sure of it. He was also sure, that the shipments came so regularly there was no obvious pattern.
Except, there was a pattern. If you had the mind of a snake. There would be a decoy. An arrest. A death, usually, when Damen wasn't around. A guards' celebration of a job well done. An illegal shipment would come in and it would get out of the port and that was that.
Damen said, “Show me.”
Laurent's research was meticulous. The proof was there in dates and times, if you believed his theory in the first place.
“There are lots of ways to look at it,” Laurent said. “I think you would like to think the guards are merely predictable.”
“I think it is too shaky for me to take this to a guard,” Damen said. So he sent his own best guard to talk to the woman with the headscarf and finally took his bath. The water was cold by now.
All the guard could report was that the woman had never done this before but a man from Isthima approached her and she took the deal.
“I think,” Damen said to Laurent. “That you and I are going to do some surveillance. And if you are pulling my leg, I will remove your baby finger.”
Laurent was uncharacteristically enthusiastic about Damen's decision. He was less enthusiastic about Damen's direction to dress in regular Akielon clothes. If he could do it for the academy, he could do it for one dark night by the docks.
“The boots and cloak stay,” Laurent insisted, referring to his hooded riding cloak and wide, short boots he sometimes wore when the tall ones were impractical.
“Fine,” said Damen. Laurent needed to cover his head. Damen removed his lion pin and dressed plainly. They took no guard and Laurent grew jumpy. This was the boy who barely saw the outside of Arles before the Akielon northern invasion and hardly saw the outside of Damen's apartments since. “Are you afraid?”
“Not of you,” Laurent snapped. That was not what Damen meant. Princes didn't need to fear anything. Laurent was well-trained and not so skinny now. He wasn't even so boyish now, if you bothered to look. “Can I have a weapon?” he asked.
“That would be illegal,” Damen said.
“You don't want to end up like that pathetic kryos?”
“You'd never get close enough.” Damen gave Laurent a little shove as they walked over the cobbles away from Ulbrech's house. “It won't be necessary. This is strictly a reconnaissance mission.”
They had narrowed it down to the far left of the pier. It was one of the places Damen had instructed the posting of more guards. In the distance, Damen could see the requisite men shuffling from foot to foot watching the horizon.
“Put your arm around me,” Laurent said.
“No,” said Damen, trying to make sense of what he just heard.
“So they don't notice us.”
“I'll tell them to leave. I am --”
“On a secret mission. If you don't pretend to be some random brute who's spent his monthly wages on the most expensive boywhore he has ever laid his eyes on then they will tell us to leave.”
“Fine.” Laurent wormed his way under Damen's cloak and wrapped his surprisingly strong arms around Damen's waist.
“What – get off me!”
“You are a terrible actor.” Laurent continued to walk. Damen had to go along or they would both trip. “Look, I'll keep talking to make you feel better. Remember that this is all an act. I would, in actuality, rather lick a cow's anus than willingly get close to the --”
“Yes, yes, the cloying sweat of an Akielon barbarian. You are such a sweet talker.”
“That's what you're paying me for,” said Laurent and pushed Damen behind a crate. “They'll be gone soon. There aren't enough men for a permanent watch.”
“But I ordered --”
“You ordered more watches,” Laurent said. His arms were still around Damen's waist. Damen felt like if he breathed too deeply, he would snap them. “I can see from here. They are walking away. We have maybe an hour before they come back. If we know that, so does your smuggler.”
An hour. Damen could do an hour of whatever bizarre turn this night had just taken. He had only meant to fulfill his orders and give Laurent a little taste of life. He had not anticipated any of this.
As soon as the guards shuffled off, Laurent pulled himself away. Damen took a flask from his cloak.
“Drink?” he offered, once he had swallowed a warm mouthful.
“No,” Laurent said, coldly.
They waited. There was only the stars to light the darkness and they had to be quiet. It was a long almost hour until light footsteps reached Damen's ears. Laurent's head snapped up, his eyes flashed. Damen had to put his arm in front of him to stop him stepping out behind the crate.
So much for Nikandros's training. Patience was important for these kinds of tasks. Laurent was bouncing on the balls of his feet as they watched a slight young man, with a dark cloak over his clothes and a striped scarf around his neck flit through the Isthiman cargo and come to a stop in front of an indistinct wooden unit.
Quick as a cat, the smuggler stamped a symbol on the flaking wood that was the royal seal.
That was proof of Laurent's theory. Now they had evidence to lay a better trap for the next date on the calendar and catch this criminal with a full contingent of port police. Damen felt a smile spread across his face, then felt it disappear as quickly as Laurent darted around him and ran towards the smuggler.
“Stop,” Damen hissed but the footsteps alone made the smuggler take off. Feeling rather like a dog chasing a cat chasing a mouse, he had no choice but to give chase too. He didn't say anything, when he should have said stop in the name of the king because ever since Marlas he had a fear of being disobeyed. The ran. They ran past crates, past cargo, feet slapping over damp ground. Laurent was fast and light. Damen was taller and faster. They ran. The smuggler ran as if his life depended on it, leading them a merry dance through shipments of spices and food. He dug his knife into a sack and grain spread all over making a slippy path for them to pass over.
Laurent struggled in his boots. Damen paused for him to catch up.
“We should split up,” Laurent said.
“No.” Damen and Laurent chased the smuggler to the edge of the dock and watched him slip neatly over the edge. There was no splash, just a crash against wood. Without pausing, Laurent jumped too and, again, Damen followed. Ahead, the smuggler was jumping from boat to boat as a leapfrog would over lilypads. They followed. There was only a limited number of boats. The chase had an upcoming, inevitable end. Even in the darkness, Damen could see Laurent's eyes flash brighter than any jewel. There was a larger gap between the next two boats, and the smuggler almost lost his footing. One leg into the water.
Damen went first, as he righted himself, and reached back to help Laurent across. There was only one more boat.
They had him cornered.
No. There were two more boats. The one they were about to reach and another, hidden under a pier, a pointy raceable thing, that their target launched without looking back.
Damen swore. The boat he stood on felt very wobbly now. These were rowboats for messengers. A crib would have more substance.
“Come on,” Laurent said and untied the rope from the mooring.
Damen found himself rowing. He had the strength for it. Laurent was kneeling at the very edge of the boat, watching the smugglers slice through the sea into the night. Damen was strong but the smuggler's boar was built for speed. He quickly disappeared from view, blending into the darkness where the sky and sea became one.
Damen stopped rowing.
“I'm not going any further in this rickety thing,” he said.
Laurent turned around, his hood down, hair whipped through with wind, and a face transformed by exhilaration. Panting, he threw himself to the floor of the boat and looked up at the sky. To Damen's utter surprise, Laurent was laughing.
“We never had a chance of catching him in this thing,” Laurent said.
“Then why – never mind.”
“I'll tell you,” Laurent said. “Look at how big everything is here.” With one fine-boned wrist, he gestured his hand towards the expanse of sea and sky and stars. It was quiet but for the gentle lapping over the waves. The port felt very far away, the palace unimaginable. “Besides,” he said, quietly, still amused. “It's the game I like.”