"It's far too small," Nicaise complained, literally turning up his nose at the rooms on display before him. "I've no idea how you and that giant savage of a slave even fit on such a narrow mattress without toppling off the edges, let alone fuck on it. Or is that the appeal? Perhaps you prefer that he ruts with you on the ground like the animal he is?"
"That's hardly a problem considering he doesn't fuck me at all, on this bed or otherwise," Laurent pointed out. Not that anyone seemed to believe him about that, despite the abundant evidence over the years that Laurent was not interested in such things. But unlike those palace gossips who'd been excitedly twittering about the supposed recent changes to Laurent's bedroom habits, Nicaise would from now on be in a unique position to know for sure what took place in the privacy of Laurent's apartments. Thankfully, it hardly mattered if Nicaise was aware of that particular truth. In fact, Nicaise would probably be doing Laurent a favour if he spread his newly acquired knowledge of Laurent's continued celibacy around. He could go shout it from the turrets, for all Laurent cared. There were far more important things for Laurent to focus on keeping secret.
It was admittedly a dangerous gamble to allow Nicaise into his rooms. It gave him easy and constant access to Laurent's personal life, and by extension increased the likelihood that Nicaise might stumble upon some of the details of Laurent's strategic plans. Laurent was well aware that Nicaise would happily use any and all perceived weaknesses he might discover against Laurent. Uncle would have called it the height of foolishness to open himself up to that kind of risk just because Laurent had felt a momentary twinge of compassion. Though perhaps it was that as much as his concern for Nicaise that had ultimately decided Laurent; wherever possible without entirely sabotaging himself, Laurent made a point of doing the opposite of whatever Uncle would consider to be the soundest strategy.
At least Laurent knew the kind of relatively straightforward selfish ambitions that would be driving Nicaise. They were something he could anticipate and deal with accordingly. The situation would have been far more treacherous to navigate if Nicaise had instead been here as a spy for Laurent's uncle, but thankfully Nicaise simply wasn't yet accomplished enough at deception to pull that off, at least not against someone of Laurent's calibre. He hadn't even been capable of hiding the real desperation that lurked under his badly-feigned casual indifference two days ago when he'd unexpectedly appeared at Laurent's door at three in the morning. His stricken face had given him away, and then on top of that Nicaise had seemed to be in an uncharacteristic disarray. He'd only been half-dressed, not in his usual cultivated trying-to-appear-alluring-despite-his-age manner, but as if he'd had to throw his clothes on in a whirlwind. Even his hair had been bordering on unkempt. To Laurent's eye, he'd looked almost wild. His too-wide eyes hadn't helped that image.
In fact, Nicaise had been in too much of a hurry to even allow Laurent time step out of the way before he'd shoved past him, effectively inviting himself into Laurent's rooms. And despite the repercussions if unfriendly ears overheard him, Laurent had barely pushed the door shut behind them before words had started spilling from Nicaise's mouth.
"The court is wondering why you've accepted an Akielon savage, of all people, into your bed when you were never willing to take on any proper Veretian pet," were the words Nicaise had opened with in a rush, as if that information could possibly have been what was urgent enough to drag them both from bed at this hour.
Despite having been woken from a dead sleep for this, though, Laurent had been willing enough to play along and assume that Nicaise would come around to the point eventually. So Laurent had replied, "I suppose they now take the origin of the slave as evidence that I have some soft spot for Akielos. As if I don't have more reason to hate them than anyone." That would have been at least part of Uncle's intention when he'd insisted that Laurent accept Kastor's 'gift'. The rest of his purpose didn't bear saying in front of Nicaise.
"Luckily for you," Nicaise had said, "I suppose I could be persuaded to do you the favour of becoming your pet to improve your image. Just because I pity you, you understand."
Of course. Nicaise couldn't possibly be making such a kind and selfless offer because he suddenly wanted to stick close to Laurent for some reason.
Or because he was running from something, more to the point.
"If you wanted me to offer for you when my uncle inevitably casts you aside, you needed only say so. Preferably at a more decent hour," Laurent had added pointedly.
"Not when the contract ends," Nicaise had said too quickly, "now." He'd seemed to try to compose himself again, still fairly unsuccessfully. "I mean, the damage to your reputation by that point would be harder to reverse. That's far too much bother for me. Better to do it now, before it's the Council, rather than just the usual idiots and social climbers, getting it into their heads that there might be a reason why you only like to bend over for barbarians."
As if the Council, except possibly Audin, would seriously think better of Laurent's character if he claimed Nicaise of all people as a pet. Nicaise couldn't really have thought that Laurent would buy into that line of 'logic'.
Laurent had just shaken his head, albeit somewhat fondly, at the obviousness of Nicaise's lies.
Then, just a few hours ago, he'd signed the contract nonetheless.
And now, not unexpectedly, Nicaise seemed to be trying to give Laurent countless reasons to regret doing so.
"Well don't expect to try to put me in this useless bed in the slave's place," Nicaise continued scoffing. "I don't care how binding that stupid piece of paper is supposed to be; the deal's off if I have to sleep in such a poor excuse for royal luxury."
Laurent's bed was, in fact, more than serviceable, designed as it was for a prince. But compared to the monstrosity that his uncle slept in, which Laurent unfortunately knew the dimensions of too well, it must indeed have seemed small to Nicaise.
"Don't pretend that you believe I'm interested in sleeping with you in any sense of the word," Laurent said, suppressing a shudder at the thought. He might have been guilty of many sins, but at least Laurent had never yet shown any signs of sharing his uncle's particular tastes in bed partners, for all that taking Nicaise on would convince people otherwise. "I'm sure that was one of your key considerations before you asked me to offer for you."
Nicaise shrugged, not denying it. "Every pet knows there are benefits to having a master who just wants to use them as a shield to pretend everything's as it should be in the bedroom. Usually that would be offset by how disgusting it is to have to pretend to fuck or suck someone too decrepit to actually get it up. At least with you that's not an issue. Everyone will envy rather than pity me, even though they all know you're too stone cold frigid for me to be enjoying myself."
"Hmm. I rather think you will enjoy not having to bend over for anyone," Laurent said. "You'll have the most freedom for the least amount of effort of just about any pet at court. You'll still receive the privileges to which you've become accustomed, and you don't have to so much as share a bedroom. Yours will be the one through that door, by the way."
Nicaise glanced into it and grimaced. "I assume these so-called privileges of yours will include an actual bed in my bedroom. If there's even space for one in there. How am I even supposed to breathe with all those books everywhere?"
"All the better for you to entertain yourself in those late-night hours when you aren't used to being left to your own devices. When you're not out sharpening your claws by playing the more foolish of the courtiers against each other well into the early hours, that is."
Nicaise's laugh then wasn't the one he displayed for the masses, light as the bells he often wore. It was mocking and, more importantly, real.
"I suppose I'd be better off spending all night every night working my way into the good graces of the court, seeing as how I'll have no comfortable bed to return to."
Laurent rolled his eyes. Nicaise was likely just trying to distract himself from the fact that he seemingly had bigger problems than the quality of his new room, Laurent reminded himself.
"Relax. I'll have a something fitting installed for you by evening. Though I suppose you won't be content unless I find you a mattress filled to the brim with pure Vaskian goose down."
"Obviously," huffed Nicaise. "And if it isn't at least twice as wide as I am tall, you'll quickly find that there are many ways in which I can make your own bed uninhabitable in retaliation."
Yes, Laurent had a feeling that he was going to regret giving a spiteful fourteen-year-old access to his apartments before too long.
"Perhaps you shouldn't have signed a five-year contract without ensuring the accommodations were up to your exacting standards," Laurent suggested.
"Oh, I don't expect to have to stay here for five whole years," said Nicaise. "For one thing, you likely won't survive that long."
"Things are hardly as dire as that," Laurent assured him. "Though the way things have been going, there does seem to be a distinct possibility that the Council might be swayed to believe that I'm unfit to take the throne. So perhaps you're right that I might not be allowed to inhabit the Crown Prince's chambers for much longer."
"If you really believe that's the worst that could happen to you, you'll be even easier for him to get out of the way than I thought." Nicaise's expression practically screamed that he knew something pertinent. Laurent had suspected as much. Nicaise had certainly been in a unique position to become apprised of potential threats to Laurent's future. Other than annoying Uncle, which Laurent thought was reward enough in itself, it was one of the few ways that Nicaise's otherwise ridiculous suggestion for Laurent to buy out his contract might potentially benefit Laurent rather than solely inconveniencing him for Nicaise's benefit.
That, and Laurent just liked him and had wanted to do something to erase the fear from his young eyes. Not that Laurent was about to tell Nicaise that.
"Please try to contain your concern for my continued well-being," Laurent said wryly. "It's embarrassing."
"I'm only being realistic. Why do you think I insisted you pay the entire contract price up front instead of as the usual monthly allowance?"
Laurent's lips twitched upwards. "Hmm, clever. Even if things go as badly for me as you seem to expect, that will surely be enough money to at least get you smuggled safely across the border and set up in style in, say, Patras. Somewhere away from the Regent's influence," Laurent added pointedly. "But you'll find that I certainly don't intend to stand idly while someone swings a sword at my neck. So you might want to consider what you'll do if I manage to survive for the whole five years."
Nicaise looked unconcerned. "In that case, I imagine there are worse things than being the pet of a King. Especially one who's unlikely to want me to so much as lick his cock occasionally in recompense."
It went unsaid that the real reason it hardly mattered how long Nicaise had supposedly chained himself to Laurent for was that Laurent would undoubtedly let him out of the contract early once the threats to both of them had been neutralised, if that was what Nicaise wanted. Nicaise likely knew that.
For now, though, they'd best use the contract to remain in relatively close proximity. They each needed each other in their own ways.
"You can repay me instead by washing that ridiculous paint from your face," suggested Laurent.
Nicaise rolled his eyes and sauntered out of Laurent's bedroom unhurriedly, as though he intended to ignore Laurent entirely. But when he reappeared sometime later, flanked by the two guards that Laurent had reassigned to shadow him whenever he stepped outside the sphere of Laurent's personal protection, Nicaise was in fact freshly bathed and unadorned, no traces left of the paint that had demarked him as a pet. Even his usual bells and jewels were gone, likely packed away until such a time as Nicaise decided he should sell them off for much-needed coin. Laurent wondered if Nicaise had shed them in the meantime because they were a reminder of who had gifted them to him. Laurent got the impression that Nicaise wasn't generally averse to shiny and expensive things.
Like this, Nicaise looked almost as young as he had when he'd come to Laurent practically begging like a frightened child those few nights prior. In the moments before he saw Laurent looking and twisted his face into a sneer, there was somehow, against the odds, actually an air of innocence about him. As if he'd been allowed a moment to be just a child and had grasped at it with both hands.
Laurent found, in that moment, that he didn't particularly regret giving up his privacy to have Nicaise here after all.
It was common practice for palace pets to maintain separate quarters that they could use during the hours their masters had no need of them. It was a system designed more so that they wouldn't be underfoot when their presence was unwanted rather than for their personal comfort, of course, but it was Laurent's understanding that most pets were glad of the occasional opportunity for privacy from their masters. Yet Nicaise was strangely eager to entirely vacate the relatively sumptuous but isolated rooms he'd claimed for the past few years in favour of having all of his belongings moved into what he proclaimed to be a cramped and under-furnished room in the apartments that he would now have to share with Laurent. If Nicaise weren't hoping Laurent's presence would act as a deterrent, Laurent imagined there was no way he'd have given up having his own space.
It seemed like a long shot that no one would notice that both Nicaise and his possessions had suddenly been relocated. Especially with Radel fussily presiding over the whole thing, clearly trying to prove that he was perfectly capable of handling the addition of both a pet and a slave to the Prince's household in quick succession even after years of adjusting to Laurent's lack of interest in such things.
Laurent expected that, at best, they had until shortly after Nicaise failed to show up in the Regent's rooms late in the evening before Uncle's wrath rained down on them. Laurent suggested that Nicaise might want to stay by Laurent's side, preferably inside Laurent's room, until the initial reaction died down a little.
In response, Nicaise loftily claimed that Laurent must be delusional if he thought that Nicaise was here for that. As if he would have come to Laurent, of all people, for protection from harm, Nicaise had sneered, when Laurent was probably no more adept with a sword than Nicaise himself.
Yet despite his contempt, he still showed no particular hurry to run off anywhere away from Laurent.
It took almost a whole day of Nicaise officially being under contract as Laurent's pet before the Regent apparently belatedly recognised that something was amiss. Perhaps Uncle wasn't actually as smart or observant as everyone, Laurent included, had thought. Laurent hoped so. Certainly, it was nice to know that Uncle's spies were less efficient than Laurent had imagined, for it then took some further four hours before anyone who was in Uncle's pocket could rightly inform him to where Nicaise had actually disappeared.
To be fair, Laurent's rooms were about the last place that most people would have thought to look for Nicaise when he'd been missing for the better part of a day. The two of them had never publicly shown signs of being able to stand each other for more than a few minutes at a time, if that.
Laurent would have preferred to have been there to see Uncle's reaction in person, but he'd had to content himself with his guards' reports that the Regent had looked genuinely shocked, not to mention visibly furious, when he'd finally found out that Nicaise had not only apparently spurned him, but that he'd taken up with Laurent instead.
It was interesting that he'd shown either of those emotions in public, even briefly. But compared to his surprise, which Laurent wasn't used to being able to bring about, the news of Uncle's anger was far more expected. To Laurent's knowledge, no pet had ever turned the Regent down for a contract before, let alone actively sought to escape a deal that had already been struck. It was usually Uncle who was refusing to renew his agreements. Laurent too often had to witness boys all but crying at the Regent's feet, begging him to give them just one more year. As if they could somehow use that delay to turn back the clock on their physically maturing bodies, or to convince Uncle that their fading youth shouldn't matter when really it was the only thing that he cared about. Though even if he hadn't found it necessary to cut the contract short himself before that day could come, Laurent imagined that Nicaise would have been too proud and too smart to bother debasing himself like that when it was clearly bound to be to no avail. Nicaise was different to the rest of them.
"I understand that you have something of mine currently in your possession," Uncle accused mildly when he finally showed up in Laurent's rooms, unannounced but far from unanticipated.
"Then your understanding is flawed. You'll find that everything in these rooms belongs to me," replied Laurent.
"Every thing, perhaps, at least for as long as you hold the title of Crown Prince. But not everyone. My pet appears to have strayed through your doors."
"Your pet? That's strange. I didn't realise you currently had one. I think, if you consult your bookkeepers, you'll find that the remainder of one of your contracts has recently been paid out, along with the penalty for its early dissolution. I'm fairly certain that makes my claim on my pet far more legal than yours."
Uncle's smile was uncharacteristically brittle. "I'd have almost believed it if you'd claimed you released him from my contract out of the goodness of your heart. You were always so desperate to act how you thought your brother would when it comes to such things. But it's hardly altruistic for you to then immediately make him your own pet instead, is it?"
"Altruistic? Don't you listen to the courtiers? They all believe that if I have a heart at all, it must be frozen solid. Why would I act so selfless?"
"Apparently Nicaise has reason to believe otherwise, if he was so desperate to be your pet that he couldn't just wait a few months for our agreement to lapse. If I didn't know better, I'd suspect you'd been carrying on an affair with him."
"Don't be jealous, Uncle," Laurent said. "I'm sure his actions weren't intended as a personal slight against you. Nicaise simply saw an opportunity to plan for his future. Obviously he's clever enough to know that a long-term contract with you was never going to happen. He'd have been approaching fifteen before his contract with you came up for negotiation again. Whatever you might have promised him, I think we all know that you wouldn't actually have renewed it, and that's generously assuming that you wouldn't have tired of him and cast him aside even earlier than that. He's too industrious to wait around for that inevitability when there's something else on offer right now."
"And does he really believe that his position has more longevity now that he's sworn to a boy who despises the very idea of pets?" Uncle asked. "In that case, I'm disappointed; I didn't think he was quite that gullible. But then, it wouldn't be the first time that someone residing in these rooms fell so thoroughly short of my expectations."
"Perhaps you should be glad that I found someone apparently so perfectly suited to me, then," said Laurent archly.
"Oh Laurent, a pet is not a means by which to try to get back at me over whatever new imagined slight you've dreamed up this week. When will you stop acting so childish and impulsive?"
"I've been pressured to offer for a pet since I turned sixteen. You call something over four years in the making an impulsive decision?" Laurent countered. "Besides, I naturally assumed that your insistence that I accept a slave must have been your way of telling me that you thought it was past time I took on a pet or two. Surely you can't be complaining about me obliging you."
Uncle said, "If I thought you wanted my leftovers, or any pet at all, that would obviously be a different matter. However, we both know you won't actually use him. Everyone in Arles knows it too. No one will be fooled by your claim that you're finally following our traditions as you should. So I'm afraid I don't understand why you would bother. You don't have an endless supply of money to waste, you know. It seems to me that your lands in Varenne and Marches are no longer quite as prosperous as they once might have been."
Laurent clearly heard the intended implication of that. The implied threat.
"I wouldn't consider it a waste to ensure that a child doesn't have to continue whoring himself just to avoid starvation on the streets," Laurent said evenly. "As you say, Auguste wouldn't have willing abided by that, so why should I? And anyway, I think that Nicaise could yet prove very useful to me in his own way."
Uncle narrowed his gaze.
Threat and counter-threat acknowledged.
"How fortunate for him that you think he has some hidden value," Uncle said, meaning the opposite. "But before he considers being too helpful, Nicaise should be aware that it would be in his best interests to step very carefully down this new path."
It was clearly a good thing that Laurent had already resolved not to let Nicaise out of his sight, or at least that of his most trusted guards whenever Nicaise inevitably wandered outside Laurent's sphere. It wasn't unheard of for Uncle's former pets to mysteriously disappear from court not long after Uncle discarded them, after all. If Uncle might have deemed those pretty but airheaded boys, whose concept of scheming began and ended at concocting new ways to make Uncle 'love' them, to be some kind of danger to him, he'd surely be ten times more wary of Nicaise, especially now that he was ostensibly under Laurent's control, such as it was.
The Regent didn't look wary now, though, despite their conversation. When he swept out of Laurent's rooms, he was far too relaxed. He had to be planning something. Well, when wasn't he?
Nicaise emerged from where he'd been eavesdropping in the next room. "He knew I was listening."
"He clearly at least suspected," Laurent agreed. "That last part was meant for you, not me."
"Well that wasn't the only part I overheard. If he didn't already see me as someone he needs to eliminate, he certainly does now. You know, it would have been better all around if you'd paid for my contract so that you could fuck me if the alternative was for you to fuck me over instead."
"We both had our reasons for the contract, but I promise you that was never one of mine. Besides, I think we both know that you already had a target on your back before you ever gave me the opportunity to paint one there. Deny it all you like, but the only reason you would have come to me for this in the first place would be that I was your best chance at ensuring yourself a decent future," Laurent pointed out. "And the fact that my uncle clearly wants you to believe that you should put distance between us makes it clear that it would benefit him to get you alone and away from me; he thinks I can protect you, even if you don't."
"You think that you're so smart, like you're predicting his moves. But he's actually always ten steps ahead of you."
Yes, it had always felt that way. For the first time, though, Laurent was starting to see a different way to navigate Uncle's chessboard.
"He certainly thinks he is," Laurent said, unperturbed. "But we have one clear advantage in that respect: he thinks he knows the scope of what we're capable, which means he won't think that we can take the offensive against him instead."
"'We'? I didn't sign up to help you overthrow the Regent."
"No? I think that's exactly what you did. You want to look out for yourself, and that means sticking with me since our interests happen to align. Those interests are best served if my uncle loses his current power. How did you think that was going to happen?"
"Not by needlessly antagonising him, you idiot!"
"It's not needless. And it's just so enjoyable to watch him have to grit his teeth and bear it when things don't go his way, don't you think?"
"Enjoyable for you, maybe," Nicaise noted bitterly. He moved as if to wrap his arms around himself before he caught himself and yanked his arms back stiffly against his sides.
Right. When Laurent had been younger, it had always been a double-edged sword whenever Uncle's plans were foiled. This was the first time since he'd been Nicaise's age himself that Laurent had allowed himself to remember that Uncle made sure that he never had to suffer alone. Since then, on the nights when Uncle felt things hadn't gone his way, the fates of those boys weren't something upon which Laurent had been able to let himself dwell. Not if he wanted to succeed in what already seemed like an almost insurmountable task. He couldn't let the guilt stop him.
And yet now there was Nicaise, reminding Laurent with every breath of the very real consequences of Laurent's efforts. That it wasn't just Laurent himself at risk here. Especially when Nicaise's very presence by Laurent's side announced to Uncle that, for whatever reason, Laurent considered this particular boy important.
Laurent wasn't allowed to have weaknesses. In truth, he should never have taken Nicaise on knowing that he could become just that. The potential reward likely wasn't worth the risk.
But he had done it all the same. And he had no intention of going back on his word now.
But that meant that one day Laurent might have to rely on Nicaise almost as much as Nicaise would be leaning on him in the meantime.
The idea was so foreign to him that his mind, intelligent though it may be, could barely even seem to process it.
Trust was generally a strange concept to Laurent. So, of all people, how was Laurent supposed to ever bring himself to trust in a barely-adolescent boy who was far too used to only looking out for himself, whatever the cost?
Laurent lounged in the midst of a small crowd of courtiers who liked to pretend, at least to his face, to be sympathetic to Laurent's cause. A pet was performing at the centre of their circle. Though his painted body was supposed to be the focus of everyone's attention, Laurent in particular was paying no heed to his display. He carried on the conversation as if there weren't a pet in front of him at all, let alone one who was basically simulating sex without a partner.
The others, keen as ever to scramble to earn Laurent's favour, tried to act equally aloof, as if they were no more interested in the pet's dance than Laurent. But Laurent could hardly miss how their eyes kept sliding back to the young man's sinuous movements, or how their own pets moved to respond to their masters' inevitable reactions to watching the performance.
Thankfully, for once no one dared to ask why there was no pet similarly assisting Laurent. That might be because they feared how sharp Laurent's tongue usually turned when anyone brought up his supposed use of his new slave. Or maybe it was that they would all simply prefer not to think about the alternative: since Laurent's slave wasn't here to mirror the other pets' actions, the other option would be Nicaise.
Lucky them, that they were in a position to just ignore the existence of such things as they chose by simply not bringing them up in polite conversation. If only Laurent could ignore those problems so easily.
Their efforts to not antagonise Laurent, and maybe even to impress him, were both empty and pointless. While there were some in Arles who Laurent believed were still loyal to the throne rather than to the man who currently sat in it, those individuals were largely absent from this particular group. Laurent didn't trust a single one of those present to take his side over the Regent if, or rather when, it came down to that. And Laurent wasn't about to tie himself to anyone who wouldn't even voluntarily do the same for him in turn.
Yet, even knowing that he could never actually rely on them, Laurent still had to make sure that these courtiers believed that their position under Laurent's rule would be prosperous enough that it didn't make sense for them to prematurely throw in their lot with the Regent, as so many already had. Unfortunately, that charade seemed to necessitate countless monotonous hours spent just like this, letting these people believe that he actively chose to spend his leisure time with them, as if they were the chosen few that would likely one day become his trusted advisors once he was King. During those times, they certainly made sure to ingratiate themselves to him as though the title was already his.
At this stage, Laurent would have welcomed a break in the mindless kowtowing, if only the interruption didn't come in the form of Jord, looking slightly harried, immediately seeking Laurent out with his eyes as soon as he hurried into the room.
Damn it. Something had to have gone very wrong for Jord to be here instead of guarding the slave as instructed. The first thing that came to mind was that the slave must have escaped, though in that case Laurent would have been surprised that Jord had been left alive and unharmed enough to raise the alarm. Laurent's next thought was that the slave might have killed someone else in a failed bid for freedom. That would give Laurent a good enough excuse to execute the Akielon despite him being a supposed treaty gift from Kastor, but Laurent couldn't even be properly happy at that prospect, for Orlant was surely the only other person who would have been in the slave's presence today, and therefore the only likely victim. Laurent didn't wish him dead, not even if it would lead to the slave's death shortly after.
Impatient to learn the truth of the matter, Laurent excused himself from the courtiers with every impression of reluctance that he had to leave them. By the time he reached Jord's side, though, the polite veneer had fallen. Laurent snapped, "What's happened?" He walked past Jord without slowing, meaning for Jord to follow him back out into the hallway where they were less likely to be overheard.
Just about the last thing Laurent expected Jord to say then was: "Nicaise seems to be trying very hard to get himself killed."
To be honest, it actually wouldn't entirely surprise Laurent if Nicaise was embarking on some self-destructive streak, given everything. But it should have been Rochert or Huet, who'd been guarding Nicaise, coming to see him about such problems. Jord, on the other hand, shouldn't have even been on the same side of the palace as Nicaise. Unless...
"Nicaise barged his way into the slave's rooms so that he could try his hand at taunting a chained animal, didn't he?" Laurent realised.
Laurent might have called that kind of stupidity a cry for attention, except Nicaise had been the recipient of Laurent's nearly undivided attention over the past few days. Probably Nicaise just wanted to find new ways to drive Laurent insane, then.
"Unfortunately, yes," Jord confirmed. "The slave is unable to do much as long as he's restrained, of course, but you know Nicaise."
"I do. In fact, I imagine that being forced to listen to Nicaise for too long could anger someone enough to lend them the strength to snap those chains just so that they'd be free to throttle him." Especially when one took into account that the Akielon's biceps alone might have been broader than Nicaise's whole body.
"Don't worry, Your Highness, we've done whatever's necessary to keep the slave in check so far. But Nicaise refuses to leave, and we weren't sure if we were allowed to –"
"Consider that from now on you and the rest of the Prince's Guard have my express permission to physically drag Nicaise from any room, kicking and screaming if need be, if it's the best way of stopping him from doing something particularly stupid."
In fact, Laurent had every intention of doing just that himself.
The walk to the pets' wing thankfully wasn't long, particularly given the pace at which Laurent was moving. When Laurent pushed his way into the slave's room, he saw that the three guards who had remained behind when Jord came for him had staged themselves in the centre of the room like a human barrier. They looked uneasy, prepared to intercede but clearly not convinced they could actually win if the slave somehow freed himself and bodily launched himself at them. On one side of them, the slave was straining at his chains, Nicaise apparently having somehow provoked a loss of control on a scale that even Laurent had yet to draw out of the slave. On the other side of the guards, Nicaise was leaning casually against the wall, smirking, apparently without a care in the world.
It said something about Nicaise's understanding of the true dangers in this palace that he was clearly more terrified of reprisal for his actions from the Regent than he was scared of the mammoth barbarian.
There was an immediate instinct to snatch Nicaise away from potential harm, even if he didn't look like he thought he needed rescuing at that moment. Laurent ruthlessly suppressed it.
"Thank goodness," someone said upon Laurent's arrival. It took Laurent a moment to realise that it wasn't any of the guards who'd spoken, but rather the slave, who had stilled in place and was currently regarding Laurent's entrance into his room with more exasperated relief than trepidation.
His awareness of the threats in Arles was obviously less developed than Nicaise's, if Laurent's presence didn't raise any sense of dread within him. Or otherwise he'd overestimated his own power here.
"Don't tell me that you're actually happy to see me," Laurent said, incredulous. He might just have to arrange to fix that soon enough.
"I'm not happy that it's you, only glad that there's finally someone here who doesn't have to wait for permission to get him out of here."
He glared past the guards at Nicaise, who smiled angelically in response.
"I've rarely been much more successful than anyone else at getting Nicaise to do anything he didn't want to," Laurent confessed. "And I'm not sure why I would waste my time trying to do so this time, especially when you've made it clear that you violently dislike having him here. Do you expect me to go out of my way just to make you more comfortable?"
"I expect you to want to avoid what might happen if you leave him here much longer."
"So I'm to believe that I need to remove Nicaise to save him from being harmed by you? You won't fuck a child, but you will beat him to a pulp given the chance, is that it? How honourable of you."
"You're one to talk about beating someone who can't raise a hand to defend himself," the slave pointed out. "But if I were free, I wouldn't hit him. I'd only shove something in his mouth to gag him."
"I'd like to see you try," Nicaise taunted, his tone full of bravado that wouldn't hold up so well if the slave actually were unchained.
"Everyone here would probably thank me for the quiet," the slave continued. He likely wasn't wrong; the guards all looked intensely uncomfortable. "Even so, I doubt that it would go well for you if he returned to Councillor Audin bleating that Prince Laurent let his slave lay hands on him. So better all around if you remove him before I'm forced to do so myself."
"That's something of a useless threat, since you're still firmly chained," said Laurent.
I won't be forever, the slave's narrowed eyes pronounced as clearly as if he'd put it into actual words.
Laurent raised his eyebrows, a challenge.
As if he were somehow ignorant of the building tension – though of course Laurent knew that wasn't the case – Nicaise chose that moment to chime in, "Well anyway, Audin wouldn't have much reason to care. Councillor or not, it's still none of his business how the Prince chooses to deal with his own pet."
It took more than an instant for the meaning to sink in. Once it did, the slave's face morphed from determination mingled with hardened dislike to utter shock. Clearly, for all that gossip spread like wildfire inside the palace, this particular news still hadn't travelled quite as far as the the slave's semi-isolated room on the outskirts of the pets' quarters.
When the slave's expression changed again, it was into something that Laurent could only describe as utterly sickened.
"No wonder you had to ask me why I refused to bed him," the slave accused, "if you think nothing of doing that yourself. Is that why you let your subjects talk about you as though you're frigid? Better that than them knowing the way your tastes really run, right?"
Laurent suppressed a grimace. That kind of misdirection wasn't dissimilar to how Uncle concealed his practices from all but a trusted few at court. Laurent hated being lumped in with him, even if the slave didn't actually know he was doing that.
Laurent hadn't thought that the slave could actually think less of him than he already did. Laurent knew he'd taken one look at Laurent and decided, much like everyone else, that Laurent was a spoiled brat with no accomplishments other than happening to be born into a royal family. And the slave already had some first-hand knowledge that Laurent could be violent and vengeful on top of that, which had hardly endeared Laurent to him. But it seemed that even with that in mind, the slave hadn't thought that Laurent would stoop quite so low as to take a child as a pet.
If Laurent didn't know better, he might think that the slave was actually disappointed in him, of all things.
It wasn't as if Laurent hadn't known there would be that kind of reaction when it became known that he'd offered for Nicaise. But it was somehow more galling when it came from this particular source, especially with that sense of moral superiority attached.
"I thought you might be pleased if my attention were diverted elsewhere," Laurent remarked, by all appearances unfazed.
"Not if it's to a child, thanks. I think I already made my stance on that abundantly clear when your Councillor tried to have me fuck him after I fought Govart."
Yes, and hadn't that been strange to try to reconcile. Laurent had expected this man to be as bad as Uncle in every way. Apparently he now expected the same of Laurent. Somehow both of them managed to be wrong.
"As if I'd have let you touch me anyway," Nicaise sneered, far more confident now than when he'd actually faced that possibility on the day. "I mean, do you even know how to fuck properly in Akielos, or do you just mount and jerk your hips aimlessly, hoping that your cock might stumble across a hole to sink into?"
The slave's jaw clenched, but he didn't look shocked, as most people would have been to hear such things coming out of a young boy's mouth. Clearly Nicaise had already introduced the slave to his personal brand of invective for long enough that he'd grown somewhat inured to it.
Apart from that small tell, though, the Akielon otherwise somehow seemed to have developed the ability to more or less ignore Nicaise's words since Laurent had entered the room. Clearly he was determined to keep himself more restrained when facing off with Laurent, as if that could somehow put them on the same level. The problem with that was that, whatever he might think, the slave was currently more of an equal with the particles of dirt stuck in the tread of Laurent's shoe than with Laurent himself.
"I wouldn't dream of letting Nicaise be subjected to your attentions," Laurent said. "If I were you, I'd be more concerned that Nicaise apparently isn't scared enough of you to actually stay away from you. You should know that if he decides to show his disdain towards you in a less pleasant way than standing in the corner of the room and sneering at you, I doubt that I'll feel inclined to stop him."
Nicaise looked a little too excited by what must have seemed like tacit permission to do as he liked where the slave was concerned. Laurent would be pleased to disabuse him of that impression once they were away from the slave's hearing.
The slave guessed, "But I'm sure you'll be only too happy to punish me if I make any move against him."
"And what if I step in to protect him instead?"
"That would be quite a feat, since he doesn't need protecting from anyone or anything except you," lied Laurent.
"Doesn't he? Not even to stop you from touching him?"
Laurent took several steps forward until he was within the radius of the slave's chain length. He ignored the increase in the tension of Jord's body, which Laurent caught out of the corner of his eye. It wasn't as if Laurent couldn't have predicted his guards' unspoken disapproval over Laurent placing himself in potential danger. He wasn't about to let that stop him from making a point.
With his voice low enough so as not to be overheard by Nicaise, Laurent warned the slave, "You know, Nicaise won't thank you for your supposed show of concern. If you're thinking that you can try to get him on your side, you were too late for that the moment you offended his pride by calling him a child when you turned him down."
"He is a child. And unlike some, I don't need children to prop me up."
"You're not exactly in a position to be so picky about who might champion you," Laurent reminded him. The slave currently had even fewer options for allies inside the Veretian capital than Laurent did, after all, and that was truly saying something lately.
And, as Laurent had intimated to his uncle, despite appearances, Nicaise might actually prove to be quite a useful ally. Just not as far as the slave was concerned.
"And clearly," Laurent added, "the last thing you need is more enemies, even if they are pubescent boys."
Dismissively, Laurent stepped back away from the slave, turning towards the door. On his way there, he hooked Nicaise by the arm and tugged him from the room, ignoring Nicaise's indignant noises.
"The next time you try to test me, you won't enjoy the outcome," Laurent told Nicaise once they were far enough away that the words wouldn't carry back into the slave's room.
"Well, I suppose you technically didn't fail the test, even if the guards had a poor showing," Nicaise said. "That's something, at least. Though next time I expect my so-called protectors to be a little less useless. I was there with that snarling savage for nearly ten whole minutes before that other guard decided to finally do something about it."
"Strangely, when I was initially instructing the guards assigned to you about how to deal with you, I didn't anticipate that you'd be quite that reckless with your well-being, given the lengths that you're going through to try to preserve your life. Obviously I won't be making that mistake again."
Nicaise's teeth flashed in a smile. "Careful; anyone would think you were actually worried about me. I mean, by my count, it was barely five minutes from your guard leaving to look for you until you appeared. You must have almost run to get there so quickly."
"If I was concerned at all, it was only that you'd be annoying enough to give the slave the push he needed to break free and escape. It would have been such a hassle to have to recover him, and to then deal with my uncle pointing out to everyone that I could hardly handle an entire kingdom if I couldn't even bring a single slave to heel. And just imagine how much Uncle would crow if the slave had killed you on his way out the door on top of that. It hardly bears thinking about him being that happy."
"You heard the savage; he wouldn't have tried to really hurt me, let alone kill me."
"I wouldn't be so quick to place faith in a lower lifeform's self-control, or the words that come out of his mouth, if I were you," Laurent cautioned.
"Why not?" Nicaise asked. "You obviously have. He was off his chain in the ring the other day, and in the stands afterwards. Even today, you stepped right up into his range without pausing. Surely you know that he could have snapped your neck before the guards could have stopped him, if he were actually inclined."
"That's not restraint as much as self-preservation," Laurent countered. "I imagine that however much it might please him to hurt me, he'd rather remain alive. He knows that he'd be run through within seconds for harming, let alone killing, a prince."
"And you wouldn't have killed him if he hurt me?" Nicaise asked. To the untrained eye he looked casual, uncaring. Laurent's eyes were, however, very well-trained.
Laurent sighed. "Is that what you intended to prove with this whole display? You'd do well to remember that my response after the fact wouldn't stop you from being dead. But yes, Nicaise, I'd have killed him. I already promised to protect you, didn't I?"
"No," Nicaise said petulantly, "you never did. You just keep saying that you know that's why I must be here."
"And knowing that, I signed a contract with you. What does that imply?"
"That you're easily manipulated."
"I've rarely been accused of that," Laurent said. Even the one man who had been able to manipulate him in the past hadn't pointed it out so bluntly.
"Not by anyone willing to say it to your face."
"How lucky I am to have you to keep me humble, then."
"Please," Nicaise said haughtily. "You have no idea how lucky you are that I lowered myself to having anything to do with you."
Perhaps that would yet prove to be true. Though, if so, Laurent had the distinct feeling that Nicaise would unfortunately never let him forget it.
"What did you say to the Akielon to make him so angry?" Laurent asked as an afterthought.
"Just a few things about his parents that he didn't appreciate," Nicaise said flippantly. Laurent got the impression that was an enormous understatement. "I hit a nerve; apparently they're dead. Recently, too, if the size of his overreaction is any gauge."
Laurent, who knew all too well how it was in the aftermath of losing family you were close to, felt a moment of disquiet.
But, he supposed, if his family was something that could successfully be used against the slave, Laurent would just have to get over that feeling.
For all that he preferred his solitude, Laurent was hardly pleased to arrive back from a late night meeting to find that he still had his rooms entirely to himself well into the early hours. There was currently no gathering of the court to explain Nicaise's absence from the newly-installed bed in the boy's room.
There had been no message sent by Nicaise's guards to suggest that anything was amiss, but what if they were in no position to alert Laurent?
Laurent turned right back out the door the way he'd come. It wasn't as though he wasn't used to sleepless nights by now anyway.
The look on Nicaise's face when he spotted Laurent approaching wasn't smug or challenging, as it might have been if this was another of Nicaise's stupid tests. Rather, for a brief moment, it was beseeching. For him to be so open about it, Nicaise must truly need Laurent's aid. And no wonder, for Nicaise, Huet and Rochert all had their hands tied when it wasn't one of Uncle's cronies harassing Nicaise, but Uncle himself.
Uncle was whispering something, his lips brushing Nicaise's ear where once sapphires would have dangled, causing Nicaise's small frame to visibly shudder. Even though Laurent couldn't hear what was said, he could imagine.
Without moving away, Uncle raised his voice to project it back towards Laurent, clearly aware of his approach. "It's annoying, isn't it, when your things somehow go unexpectedly missing?"
"Nicaise can certainly be a handful to keep track of when he wishes," Laurent admitted, "but I suppose that's bound to happen when someone who's used to being treated as a mere possession is finally allowed to act like an actual person and do as he pleases."
"Do you hear that?" Uncle directed at Nicaise. "It seems he's tiring of you already."
"I said no such thing. In fact, just the opposite. Nicaise keeps things interesting, and you know how I hate to be bored."
"Rather unsurprising of you, since requiring constant entertainment is one of many signs of childishness."
"Is it? And here I was about to ask if you'd felt compelled to seek my pet out in the middle of the night because you'd grown bored without him around."
Uncle's smile was foreboding. "Not at all. His absence has freed up my attention for other pursuits."
Like, for example, planning his next move against Laurent.
"Well then, by all means, we had better leave the Regent to it, Nicaise. It seems that he is too busy to have time to spare for us."
It had likely been years since Nicaise had allowed himself to move with as little dignity as he exhibited while he practically scurried to Laurent's side. He looked his age more than ever.
The walk back to their rooms was silent except for Rochert's aborted attempt to apologise for being unable to intervene, which Nicaise interrupted by glaring and effectively calling him useless. Though Nicaise, of course, chose far more graphic words than that to get that point across.
Once they were inside the rooms, and free of the watchful eyes of the guards, Laurent demanded, "Did he touch you?"
Pointless question. Of course he had. Uncle enjoyed having that kind of power over boys like Nicaise too much to want to restrain himself. Though in public, with two of Laurent's guards closely watching, he wouldn't have risked more than furtive brushes, easily explained away; far from the extent of touching to which Nicaise was accustomed. After all, even the Regent wasn't allowed to lay hands on the Prince's contracted pet without permission. Supposedly.
But that hardly mattered when Uncle had gotten his point across: the fact that Nicaise was no longer his own pet didn't prevent the Regent from doing as he pleased to him. He just had to choose his moment.
Though Laurent intended to disprove that soon enough.
For now, Laurent had to settle for rephrasing: "Did he hurt you?"
"No." That syllable didn't quiver. One show of weakness per night was already too much for people like them.
"No, I suppose he wouldn't. He's not that kind of sadist." Uncle might have enjoyed causing tears, but he usually liked to prompt them with words, not fists or whips.
In an unexpected fit of honesty, Nicaise confessed, "He said he just wanted me to know that he hadn't forgotten me. That he never would. And that I'd never be able to forget him either. And he said, when you inevitably decided to get rid of me, he'd be waiting to take me back." He paused, then asked. "I'll never be safe now, will I?"
"We both will be when he's out of favour and power," Laurent promised.
"You mean when he's dead," Nicaise said. "That's the only way he's no longer going to be a threat. He could talk himself out of any prison and you know it. He's... influential."
It was a strange thought; whatever might have transpired between them, Uncle had been the one constant in his whole life. Laurent could hardly imagine him being dead. And yet...
"If that's what it takes," Laurent decided.
Nicaise said viciously, "Except that you're too toothless to do a single fucking thing to actually get rid of him. He has too much support, and too many soldiers who care more that he filled their pockets than that you should ultimately outrank him. You'd need a large army that isn't already bought off by him to pry him from the throne. And if you try to tell me that you have one of those stashed away somewhere, I won't believe it."
Nicaise clearly didn't expect Laurent to answer that with a wicked smile. "Why not? Can you think of no army that might have reason to dislike the current ruler of Vere? And it would be simple enough to give them incentive to act. I don't think they'd take well to a man who conspired to kill their King and heir, do you?"
Nicaise scowled. "There's no way a hoard of barbarians marching into the heart of Vere can end well for either of us. Not that I think you'd succeed in recruiting their help anyway. You can't even persuade your own people to follow their rightful future King. What makes you think that bunch of heathens who hate our whole country will listen to a word out of your mouth?"
"You'll find that I can be quite persuasive when it's worth my while," Laurent said cryptically.
"Persuasive enough that, if the Akielons do actually get the Regent off your throne for you, they're going to act like complete chumps and just nicely hand over the kingdom that they've newly conquered? I can hardly wait to see that hilarious attempt to negotiate."
Sardonically, Laurent said, "Thank you so much for your support, Nicaise."
Nicaise shrugged. "Acting supportive takes effort, and it's four o'clock in the fucking morning. I'm too tired for this shit."
"So I'll expect you to suddenly start being nice to me once you've had your beauty sleep, shall I?"
"Ha. Dream on."
"That's what I thought."
It shouldn't have been surprising that Nicaise didn't wake Laurent up in the middle of the night with the sounds of nightmares prompted from his most recent encounter with his former master. If Nicaise had been prone to that sort of unconscious tell, Uncle would have set him aside for being too irritating to bother with years ago. No matter their similarities in personality and experience, Laurent had to remember that Nicaise wasn't going to deal with things in the same way as Laurent had.
Unfortunately, Nicaise's chosen coping method instead seemed to involve taking his frustrations out on Laurent.
"Are you serious? You might just be the stupidest fucking person I've ever met," announced Nicaise. "And I've been at court dealing with proper idiots for three years now, so that's really an all-time low."
"While I'm sure I'd appreciate your unbiased assessment of my intelligence, it might be more useful if I actually knew to what you were referring," suggested Laurent.
"Cut the crap. I know why you've been waiting for your uncle to leave. The Regent knows it too. He'd usually try to convince you to go to Chastillon with him, wouldn't he? Strange that this time he chose to go alone without even consulting you."
"Yes, obviously he's giving me a long length of rope and a chance to hang myself."
"If you know that, then why are you just playing into his hands? Look, I happen to know that the Regent gave you direct orders about the slave's treatment. However much you might want to work out your hatred of Akielos on him, are you really going to claim it's worth giving the Regent the opportunity to use your disobedience against you?"
'Disobedience', Laurent thought, as though he were a careless child rather than a grown man less than a year from becoming King. That would be precisely how Uncle would both think of it, and how he'd pose it to the Council.
And yet. "My Uncle isn't here to adjudicate the fairness of punishments right now, and I have every intention of making sure my actions are justified. You've already seen up close how strongly the slave misbehaves under certain conditions."
"Fine. Let's say you could get the Council to agree that it was warranted. In the grand scheme of things, what does that matter? Isn't it more important not to blow your one real advantage here? You want to get the Akielon army on your side, right? Then why the fuck would you kill the one Akielon soldier you already have access to when you could be getting him on your side instead?"
"A man that size won't die from a little quality time spent on the cross." Probably. Laurent certainly wouldn't mourn if he did. "And I have my reasons."
Nicaise narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. Then he seemed to decide, "Well I don't care about your stupid reasons. You're not doing this."
"Oh? I wasn't aware that my actions required your pre-approval."
"It's been rubbed pretty obviously in my face that my fate's tied up with yours now. I'll be just as screwed as you when this inevitably backfires. Shouldn't I get a say in that? Besides, if part of you didn't know I was right, you'd have just killed him the minute he arrived and dealt with the consequences later."
Laurent was unlikely to ever admit aloud that Nicaise might have a point. Yet the knowledge practically burned him from the inside out. He wanted to take this chance at revenge almost desperately, but he knew Uncle would predict that. Had already predicted it, in fact. If there was one thing Uncle knew all too well about Laurent, and would be relying on, it was that sometimes when he was buried in the depths of strong emotions, Laurent couldn't consider his options with as much clarity as he should be able to. Clearly, this was one of those times, especially if even Nicaise was able to tell him that he was making a potentially foolish decision.
Yet he still wanted to do it enough that, as something of a last ditch effort, Laurent claimed, "That plan won't work. He already hates me too much to work with me." And Laurent couldn't imagine willingly working alongside him in turn.
"What's wrong? Not up to a challenge?" Nicaise baited him. "Don't tell me the Prince of Vere, famed for his quick mind and quicker tongue, can't come up with some way to turn one credulous idiot to his side."
Laurent didn't particularly want to give Nicaise the satisfaction of rising to that taunt. But at the same time, he could already see a plan prompted by Nicaise's words unfolding before him.
After all, if the rumours coming out of Akielos could be believed, Laurent currently had something that the Kyros who had taken up occupation of Delfeur would certainly value more than whatever tiny amount of loyalty he felt towards his new bastard King, and perhaps even more than he valued his own lands.
And why should Laurent stop at having the Akielons deliver his kingdom to him if he could also get them to restore the lands that should still rightfully be part of Vere while he was at it?
He had been patient for years. Perhaps he could wait a little longer.
The slave had claimed not to want it from him, but Nicaise nonetheless seemed to have presented himself as the best ally the slave had right now, even if it was really only incidental to Nicaise looking out for himself. And yet, unless Nicaise was in the mood to rub it in that he was owed a favour, the slave would probably never even know that Nicaise had in effect saved his skin, and perhaps even prolonged his life.
Still, as if he somehow sensed that change even though Nicaise was still openly sneering at him, a week or so later, just after Uncle returned from Chastillon, Laurent observed the slave seemingly trying to cultivate some kind of camaraderie with Nicaise at the dinner table.
Their voices were cast low enough that Laurent only heard snatches, but he could make out Nicaise viciously telling the slave where he could shove his fake sympathy.
And he could hardly miss it when Nicaise sank the prongs of the fork into the meat of the slave's thigh.
"I did tell you that Nicaise wouldn't be won over so easily," Laurent said smugly.
"And yet you somehow managed it," the slave muttered. "Or was your money all that was required?"
"Maybe the Prince is just more charming than you," Nicaise suggested. Laurent's eyebrows raised. Even for the sake of annoying the slave, it was uncharacteristic to receive any kind of hint at a compliment from Nicaise. Laurent belatedly noticed a slight slurring to the words. Ah, that would explain it.
"That would be a bad idea," Laurent cautioned when Nicaise moved to knock back another cup of wine.
Laurent didn't find it overly surprising that a fourteen-year-old boy, even one as often at court as Nicaise, couldn't hold his drink. He did find it interesting that Nicaise had chosen to indulge in the first place. He knew he was in a perilous position. He knew the Regent would likely take advantage of any weakness.
Perhaps, after their most recent run-in, Nicaise had simply decided to rely on Laurent to stay the Regent's hand.
Nicaise snorted and slammed the cup down, making wine slosh over the edge. "I'd say 'you don't own me', but fuck, turns out you do," Nicaise said bitterly.
"At your request," Laurent reminded him.
"Don't fucking remind me."
Nicaise stood and stormed away. Laurent watched two of his guards peel away from the others to follow him. He signalled another three guards to join them. As imprudent as it might be, if Nicaise was placing his trust so wholly in Laurent's protection, he wasn't planning to give him reason to regret it.
The slave narrowed his eyes at Laurent. "You actually care about him." From anyone else in Arles, that would have registered almost as an accusation. In this particular case, though, the words contained an odd sort of wonderment, as if they were some kind of world-altering revelation.
"Don't be even more foolish than usual," Laurent snapped. "I'm simply preserving an asset."
But the slave didn't seem to believe it. He usually seemed less than apt at reading people's intentions, but apparently he thought he'd seen Laurent's real emotions for once. It was frustrating that for once he was actually right. Enough so that Laurent had Jord and Orlant escort the slave away so he wouldn't have to see him for the rest of the night, and then retreated to his rooms so that he could be alone for a while.
If only he could be lucky enough to have a few uninterrupted hours to himself.
Laurent had never seen Nicaise actually break a sweat until he dashed into their rooms later that night and almost skidded painfully into the edge of Laurent's table. Clearly the alcohol was still in effect, then. He'd probably even kept drinking once he was out of Laurent's sight.
But drink couldn't be the only thing at play. After all, Laurent had only seen Nicaise that frantic once before.
"I overheard... oh."
His wide eyes seemed to have come to rest on Laurent's half-empty cup, of all things. He looked strangely forlorn at the sight of it.
Laurent blinked, somewhat heavily, and peered suspiciously into the goblet. It might be his imagination, but he thought that perhaps the liquid wasn't quite as colourless as Laurent had assumed.
Laurent rose to his feet, and wasn't overly surprised that his limbs felt slightly unsteady.
"Call Paschal," Laurent directed. Nicaise had yet to follow any order of Laurent's without an arduous amount of complaining and excuses, but he dearly hoped that this might be the one exception.
"No, it's not poison," Nicaise said, though somehow it didn't come across as reassuring. Perhaps that was because Nicaise continued, "Not exactly. Never mind that. We have to get out of here."
They couldn't go anywhere, though, for moments later the doorway was blocked.
Three men who most definitely shouldn't have been wearing Laurent's starburst livery were escorting the slave into Laurent's rooms. The story Uncle would spin from this wrote itself across Laurent's mind in an instant.
As calmly as he could manage, given that whatever substance he'd ingested was starting to make his muscles feel shaky and overtaxed, Laurent hooked his hand around Nicaise's elbow and relocated him to the most defensible spot in a room obviously not built for combat. Then he placed himself squarely in front of Nicaise.
"How thoughtful of you to escort my slave here for me. But as you can see, my attention is currently occupied."
"Don't worry," one of the leering men said, "the little harlot will be joining in."
The slave recoiled at that. It was oddly comforting to know that the slave likely wouldn't stand by and allow Nicaise to be violated, even if Laurent doubted he'd also extend that protection to Laurent himself. Perhaps the brute would even call that justice, after Laurent had pitted him against Govart.
And yet, when the slave moved, it wasn't to get in between the assassins and Nicaise and let the guards play things out with Laurent. Rather, he took on first one then two of Laurent's would-be attackers directly.
When he'd been fighting Govart in the ring, somehow Laurent hadn't noticed the way the slave's muscles rippled under his smooth skin. It took several long moments and a panicked hiss from Nicaise before Laurent caught himself staring, his mouth slightly open and his breath oddly short, when he should have been focusing on the opponent stalking towards him. Even knowing that, it was still hard to motivate himself to drag his eyes away.
He was too unfocused, not at all like himself. The room felt hot. The walls were too close. And somehow it seemed like the slave wasn't close enough.
Oh. Not a poison 'exactly'. Elsewhere in the palace, Uncle must truly have been chuckling darkly over Laurent's intended fate for this evening.
But Laurent had even less intention than usual of letting Uncle have his way. Apparently the slave didn't intend to let Uncle's plan come to fruition either, even if he didn't know in whose scheme he was interfering. And then there was also Nicaise, who had refused to stay out of it as Laurent would have preferred. Though, unlike the slave, Laurent wasn't sure how much help Nicaise would actually be, since kicking the man Laurent was scuffling with in the backs of the legs seemed to be the only fighting technique that Nicaise was currently coordinated enough to try while still relatively drunk, and even then he was barely managing it.
In the end, though, Nicaise's tactic might have had some merit after all. The mercenary stumbled when Nicaise's heel caught the back of his knee just the right way.
Laurent dispatched the man, followed by the one the slave was holding in place for him, to the slave's apparent shock.
Laurent found himself disarmed a moment later. It occurred to him that the slave might only have acted against the assassins because he wanted to deal with Laurent himself. Laurent could understand that. Some debts were too personal to be repaid by others.
Nicaise broke their stand-off by saying, "Why are you morons just standing around? It might have escaped your notice, but we aren't safe here. We have to leave Arles."
Before Laurent could reply to that, he was rudely interrupted by Uncle's men invading his apartments and pretending at offering assistance. By the time he'd gotten rid of them and allowed himself to lean heavily against Nicaise, as if he could provide much support when he was swaying unsteadily himself, Laurent noticed the slave eyeing him speculatively and lifting the tipped cup.
"It's an Akielon drug," the slave said, clearly recognising it. His eyes looked slightly amused at Laurent's plight.
"Yes," Laurent agreed. "Like the knives. Like the slave brought along to participate. Are you sensing a theme?"
"The drug is –"
"I already know what it is, and what it does," Laurent snapped.
"Then you must have a fair idea that you won't be in much of a state to stop us." The slave's hand fell heavily on Nicaise's shoulder. "Come on. You're coming with me."
"I'm what? Why would I want to go anywhere with you?" Nicaise protested.
"Because I can get you out of here, to somewhere you'll be safe."
"To where, Akielos? Where I'll be expected to downgrade from pet to slave on your say-so? Fat chance of that."
"You can head over the border into Patras before we get there, then, if you prefer. Either way, I'm not going to leave a child here fearing for his life any more than I'd have left either of you to be raped and murdered in the middle of the night in what should have been the safety your own rooms." There was a strange edge to that last part.
Nicaise resisted as the slave's grip moved down to encircle his upper arm, firm but not quite bruising. Kicking had worked once before tonight for Nicaise, but his legs were quickly captured and neutralised by the slave's capable hands, which lifted him entirely off the ground without any indication that Nicaise's weight was a strain, though the slave's muscles did visibly flex as Nicaise struggled.
Despite himself, Laurent was staring again.
"I will make such a massive fucking ruckus that you'll be caught in two seconds flat," Nicaise warned. "And then I'll tell the guards that you were actually the one who tried to rape and kill the Prince and I, and that you're kidnapping me to finish the job."
"None of that will be necessary," Laurent said quietly, with great effort. He fought valiantly not to writhe in place, determined not to show the evidence of the growing discomfort caused by the drug.
"It won't?" the slave asked, taken aback enough that he loosened his grip. Nicaise wrenched himself free, nearly falling flat on his back in the process.
"Nicaise may unfortunately be right," said Laurent even as he was still processing their options. Though it was hard to think in this state. "Arles isn't safe. It seems that since my uncle's efforts to break me and disgrace me in front of the Council haven't progressed quite according to plan recently, he's graduated to outright seeking my death. Now that I know that's what he wants, he won't see much reason to hold back. He'll keep trying to kill us until he succeeds. Most likely, he'll find a way to send us away from Arles himself to make us easy targets on the road; he's been trying to force that fate upon me for years anyway. Better that we leave on our own terms so that he'll at least have more difficulty tracking us and installing spies among us."
"Surely your uncle can't have arranged this," the slave said, disbelieving.
Nicaise said, "Let me guess: you think he's too nice for that. You don't know a damn thing. Who the fuck do you think held my contract prior to the last few weeks? And I for damn sure didn't spend my nights alone in my own bed during those three years the way I do now."
That apparently did the trick in turning the slave from his attempted defence of the Regent. Laurent hadn't realised that skin so much darker than his own could actually appear pale until that moment.
Laurent said, "The southern border will be our destination. Unless I miss my guess, you seem rather desperate to get over the border to Akielos yourself. Your return to your country can certainly be arranged, for a price."
"I don't have money."
"Your coins would mean nothing to me if you did. I have a different currency in mind. Don't worry, you won't be the one paying it."
"If you think to trade me to back alley slavers –"
"Oh, why are princes all so fucking thick?" Nicaise interrupted impatiently. "Obviously he's talking about a ransom, not a sale, because he knows who you really are, Damianos."
Nicaise's outburst was initially met with utter silence.
Then: "Remind me never to let you drink again," Laurent said, exasperated. "Apparently you're even worse at censoring your mouth while intoxicated."
"You think you could actually stop me?" Nicaise challenged. "I'll drink whenever I want. Besides, I bet I'm in a better state than you right now."
Nicaise's eyes flicked over to the slave. To Damianos; there was little point in Laurent pretending that he didn't know his identity now that Nicaise had gone ahead and blurted it out. Smugly, Nicaise told the Akielon, "You look like a particularly ugly fish with your mouth flopping open like that."
Before Damianos could get the mouth in question to work well enough to comment, the door behind him practically slammed open and a miniature parade of Laurent's men – the real thing this time, not assassins in disguise – swept into the room, looking ready for a fight. Laurent was glad to see Huet and Rochert among them, for he'd feared when they didn't come running after Nicaise that they may have met the same fate as the guard who'd been posted to the door to Laurent and Nicaise's rooms that night must have. Nicaise must have lost his protectors at some point, probably on purpose. Laurent couldn't imagine their presence would have been conducive to whatever eavesdropping Nicaise had done to learn of Laurent's imminent drugging and attack.
"It's depressing that my uncle controls this palace thoroughly enough that it took you twenty whole minutes longer than his own men to get here," Laurent remarked.
"Our apologies, Your Highness," said Jord, sounding crestfallen at the rebuke. "We were… detained."
"I assumed as much. Luckily, you'll be taking an extended break from dealing with the meddling of the Regent's Guard. Gather the others and rations for two weeks, then go through the tunnels I showed you last week. Take Nicaise with you. Be careful not to let anyone see him, though; he's likely being watched almost as heavily as I am right now, and the aim is for you not to attract attention."
"Why do I have to go with them?" Nicaise complained.
"You did want to leave Arles, didn't you?" Laurent pointed out.
"Obviously, but not alone in the middle of a group of commoner soldiers who'll probably leave me to starve and die unless I earn my keep as a hole for them to fuck when they get bored."
Laurent was pleased to see that more than one of his men cringed at that prospect, though whether that was because of Nicaise's age or his personality Laurent couldn't rightly say. Probably both.
Either way, Laurent promised, "They'll do as I order. And it would certainly go against my orders for them to do that." He wouldn't allow it. And his men knew better than to risk incurring their Prince's wrath by trying something so stupid.
Nicaise shrugged as if he didn't care either way. He wasn't particularly convincing. Still, he didn't protest (much) when Huet placed a hand on his shoulder in preparation to lead him away.
"What about you?" Jord asked Laurent.
"You'll need time to pack and get clear of the immediate area around Arles before Uncle sends his men out into the countryside looking for me. I'll buy you that time and then catch up and meet you on the Steppe road."
"And him?" Orlant asked, peering at Damianos. To Orlant's eyes, he was nothing more than an anonymous Akielon soldier turned slave, but that by itself was enough reason to be suspicious of him, especially under these circumstances.
"He'll be helping me to provide a diversion," Laurent said. It wasn't a question. He didn't plan on giving Damianos a choice.
Damianos narrowed his eyes at Laurent, but he could say little in rebuttal given their present company.
Laurent's Guard all to a man looked as leery of that arrangement as Damianos did, but when Laurent reminded them that they were likely on a limited timeframe, for the Regent would surely call Laurent before the Council to address the earlier attack soon enough, they nodded and took their leave.
Nicaise sneered, "Well if you're stupid enough to get yourself captured and leave me alone out there with this group of halfwits, I'll just shrug and leave you to the Regent's mercies."
"Careful. People will start thinking that you have actual feelings if you keep displaying so much obvious sentiment," replied Laurent.
Once they were alone, Laurent didn't give Damianos a chance to speak. After all, anything that came out of his mouth was bound to just remind Laurent of how little he wanted him, of all people, in his presence right now. Instead, Laurent said, "Whatever delusions you might have had about escaping Arles either on your own or with Nicaise in tow, let me make it clear that you'll be lucky to gain yourself an hour of freedom without me."
"That's still an hour more freedom than I'd have with you," Damianos pointed out.
Laurent leaned back against the wall. He was fairly certain he succeeded in making it look like a show of casual indifference rather than a necessity born of his legs starting to quake. He didn't look forward to having to run around on such unsteady limbs, but there was no time to wait for the drug to work its way out of his system, so he would just have to manage. At least he was already well versed in making the best of whatever poor circumstances were on offer to him.
Glancing down at the Akielon's wrists, currently hanging loose with only the weight of the gold cuffs to hinder their free movement, Laurent commented, "Freedom is relative. You're already out of your chains, aren't you? On top of that, soon enough you'll be breathing fresh air and seeing the stars instead of stone above your head. And if you and Nikandros both decide to be properly compliant, in just a few short weeks you'll find yourself back in Akielos amidst the northern armies of your countrymen who, unless I miss my guess, will be far more loyal to you than to your brother. That's certainly a better deal than you'll get if you try to run to my uncle to tell him of my plans, especially after you unexpectedly helped to foil his attempt against me tonight."
"Wants me dead, yes, do try to keep up. And just so you know, if you either stay behind in Arles or try to escape on your own, he'll be almost just as pleased to kill you as well, since your only possible uses to him all rely on you remaining in direct contact with me. Though it's beyond me how anyone, especially him, could be naïve enough to think that I wouldn't recognise the face of my brother's killer, much less that I would let my guard down around you enough to allow you to become something my uncle could use to break me."
"Does everyone in this place know who I am?"
"I doubt anyone else has figured it out. Though Nicaise was admittedly a surprise. But obviously my uncle knows. What, did you think your brother was the mastermind who came up with the idea to send you here? Unlike my uncle, it would have been in Kastor's best interests to kill you rather than enslave you. It would seem the Regent of Vere is the one really calling the shots in Akielos right now. I wonder how long it will be before he tires of puppeteering your country's from a distance and just decides to take it over entirely. Soon, I think, since he's already setting the stage for a declaration of war by sending in thugs with Akielon drugs and weapons to assassinate me. I do hope your country is currently united enough to stand firm against him when he makes his move. It would be such a shame for Akielos if Uncle caught you on the verge of civil war due to the current succession issues."
Laurent could tell that the taunt spurred Damianos into action better than any amount of sweet promises could have, at least when they were tumbling from Laurent's lips.
"Fine, I'll come with you." The silent 'for now' was badly concealed.
Laurent was under no illusions that Damianos wasn't just using him to speed his way back to Akielos. Laurent imagined that the moment Damianos saw a chance to successfully make it to the border on his own once they'd broken free of Arles, he'd happily take it.
But he would get no such chances. Laurent had no intention of being so careless with what, as Nicaise had pointed out, was probably his best chance of buying the support he needed against his uncle. If he wasn't going to be able to enact revenge on him (yet, Laurent reminded himself, for he could be patient still), then Laurent fully intended to at least get the maximum amount of use out of Damianos before letting him go.
Damianos said, "I have to wonder, though: if you know a secret way out of Arles, why not simply use it yourself and go with your men? Unless, of course, it's not a secret after all, and it's your men rather than yourself who'll be acting as the distraction?" He looked disgusted at the thought of throwing away men so casually, as if he hadn't just a few years ago sent wave after wave of Akielon troops to break their spears upon Veretian shields before he'd bothered to wade into battle himself.
"Do you really think I'd have sent Nicaise with them if that was my plan?"
"I'm beginning to think that I don't know what I should expect of you, especially when it comes to Nicaise."
"Then obviously I'm on the right path, because the key to success here is to subvert the existing expectations of me. What my uncle will anticipate is that I'll act like he would, only less aptly. So I'll do the opposite of that. Uncle would never believe I'd risk offering myself up as a diversion. He thinks me too selfish for that. Thankfully, it should be easy for us to slip away from the pursuers unnoticed when the time comes. Two unburdened men are more difficult to catch than twelve men lugging supplies and a recalcitrant adolescent along with them, wouldn't you say?"
"That's debatable when one of the two men is under the influence of a particularly distracting drug."
Laurent didn't flinch, but it was an uncomfortable reminder that Damianos clearly knew, despite how well Laurent was trying to control himself, what kind of effect the drug was having on him. The sweat forming visible droplets on Laurent's brow probably wasn't doing much to help him conceal that he was hardly unaffected.
Still, Laurent countered, "All that means is that you might actually have half a chance of keeping up with me. As for my uncle's Guard, they've long since grown unused to having to actually act as soldiers. I could still outrun them while hobbled and chained and having choked down twenty times the dose they slipped me tonight. Besides, the Regent's Guard's ability to stop us will be limited by the fact that they'll be trying to detain us, not kill us. My Uncle doesn't exactly confide his true plans to most of them, as you can imagine. They'll naturally assume that their role should be to stop the Akielon beast from abducting their Prince, not to make sure I don't make it out of Arles alive."
"And you wouldn't encourage the idea that I was kidnapping you if we were caught, would you?" Damianos said suspiciously.
"There's a simple solution to that concern: don't get caught. I'm just as motivated to stay out of their grasp as you. If I were to 'accidentally' be killed during their efforts to retrieve me, I'm certain that my Uncle would make a good show of being grieved by it. Enough to move against Akielos to 'avenge' me the moment he declares himself King."
"Vere truly is a pit of snakes."
"Whereas no one in Akielos would ever conspire to do away with the rightful heir to the throne for their own benefit, even if that heir happens to be family," Laurent countered pointedly.
Damianos bristled, but said nothing to defend his betrayer brother.
"It's time, I think. Take this blade with one hand and grab my arm with the other," Laurent ordered, "and don't fall behind; it's supposed to look like you're dragging me at knife-point, not the other way around."
Damianos looked as annoyed as always at being treated like Laurent's lesser rather than his equal. Laurent had no idea how this idiot thought he could fool anyone into thinking he was less than a prince, born into absolute entitlement. And yet he did as Laurent asked.
Laurent made no attempt to be stealthy. Quite the opposite. Just to be sure, he even cried out, as if in pain, to gain the attention of a passing cluster of the Regent's Guard. An alarmed yell went up at the sight of him being apparently hauled away by the Akielon slave, who must have looked more dangerous than ever to them now that he was out of his chains and armed. Once the call for reinforcements echoed around the halls, what seemed to be the entire military force of Arles was quickly drawn to where Laurent was weaving through the maze of halls around the upper edges of the palace, leaving the path through the centre of the lower levels entirely unguarded for his own people to use at will.
Well, Laurent decided, they'd certainly grabbed their attention.
They made it to the outer ramparts of the palace and put enough distance between them and the guards to make it unimpeded to an area where Laurent knew they could skim their way over the roofs and then beyond the wall. Assuming they could successfully get to the roof in the first place, of course. Laurent's knees wobbled as he boosted himself up the wall. He contented himself with the fact that he was still, even under the drug's effects, able to climb faster than Damianos, who was weighed down by his own mass.
"If you don't want to be caught, I suggest you hurry up," Laurent instructed Damianos. "If it hasn't already, it will shortly occur to the Regent's Guard that there's no point in all of them trailing at our heels when most of them could instead just surround the palace and box us in. I'd like to be well on our way before they can get into position outside."
"Give me a minute. Not everyone is light enough to scurry around like a mouse."
"Are you saying those muscles of yours are purely for show? How disappointing."
Although he was smaller and therefore quicker to make it to the slanted roof than Damianos, though, Laurent's legs couldn't hold out forever. The sporadic shaking of his left knee finally made him stumble, slipping down along the tiles for a horrifying moment. But somehow he stopped before plummeting off the side where the guards could easily fall upon him. Not only that, but he was somehow rising back up to the safety of the roof's peak.
Laurent looked up at his hand, which was dwarfed inside the grip of large, warm fingers. Damianos pulled him up to a flat ridge that he should be able to comfortably run along even in his current state.
"Turns out my muscles do have a practical use after all," Damianos pointed out. He looked amused rather than alarmed, as if he hadn't feared for Laurent for a moment. Either he didn't care about Laurent's fate in the slightest, which would be remarkably short-sighted even for him considering how Laurent's capture or death would spell the end of him, or he was just so arrogant that he didn't have the slightest doubt of his ability to stop Laurent from falling.
"Walk to the left of me so that you'll stumble into me rather than over the edge if you slip again," Damianos instructed.
It was Laurent's turn to balk at being ordered around as if he wasn't a prince. "I won't fall again," he huffed. "I make it a point to never make the same mistake twice."
"Here I thought you would have claimed to be entirely infallible in the first place."
"Only an idiot doesn't acknowledge his weaknesses," was all Laurent would say on the matter.
The Regent's men were still in pursuit, but a level below them, shouting up at them as if that would be enough to halt their progress toward the outer walls. With Laurent looking physically weaker than he usually would, it probably really did appear that the slave was dragging him against his will. They could do nothing to stop it from happening, though. Laurent and Damianos made it over the wall with at least a minute or two of lead-time on anyone who would think to scramble up to the roof to follow them directly.
"We'll have to hurry and get out of sight if we want them to lose track of us."
"We don't want that," Laurent countered as he took off towards the south. Damianos hesitated for a moment, but ultimately followed him. "Not just yet."
"You want them to know where we're going?"
"My uncle will likely predict our eventual destination now, since there's no other reason for me to take you with me."
"Great. Then his men will likely fan out and detain every single person who looks like they might be heading towards the Akielon border."
"I'm sure they will," Laurent said. "Which is why we won't be heading south."
"We are going south," Damianos pointed out.
"Oh, so they teach you that much in Akielos, do they? I did wonder whether any of you were actually educated."
Damianos gritted his teeth at the jab. "All right, so you intend to double back once you've drawn our followers in a particular direction. I'm not an idiot; I get it. So where is this road where we're actually meeting your men?"
"On the border of the Northern Forests."
"I assume, as the name suggests, that's north of here, in the exact opposite direction to where we're supposed to be going. What's the point of giving your Uncle time to manoeuvre his men into place to block off any attempts to try to move south?"
"Didn't I just say we weren't going south? Not directly south from here, at any rate. And not by any route that my uncle will easily be able to intercept."
Damianos narrowed his eyes and him and warily asked, "We're going east?"
"The closest passage through the mountains into Vask is too far south of here. As you pointed out, we'd likely be caught on the way."
Damianos sighed, as if he'd been afraid of that. "You can't be thinking of going west."
"Can't I?" Laurent asked mildly.
"I thought the point of this was to not get killed. These days Galacia is little more than a pirate port. It's teeming with people who'll take one look at you and Nicaise and murder you just for the clothes on your back."
Unconcerned, Laurent said, "Then obviously we'll need to disguise ourselves."
Incredulous, Damianos said, "You think a bunch of hardened criminals who are always on the lookout for anything of value that they can steal are somehow going to fail to take notice of someone like you, no matter how you dress?"
The way he said that might, from another man's mouth, have been taken as appreciation.
Laurent smirked. "Of course not. That's why we'll be hiding in plain sight."
If there was one main advantage to wanting to be chased, it was that Laurent could draw as much attention to himself as he liked. The way he imperiously swept into the town adjacent to the palace meant that anyone who was still outside their homes at this hour quickly recognised him even in the low light. With his identity as Prince on clear display, the men from whom he demanded the use of two horses handed them over without argument, though they did gape, shocked into stillness, for a long moment before remembering themselves and scrambling to simultaneously bow to him and hand him the reins.
It wasn't lost on Laurent that they seemed even more taken aback by the sight of Damianos, who was still dressed in the slave garb that seemed to only highlight his massiveness, than they were by unexpectedly having their Prince stride up to them out of the darkness and start making demands.
They waited until Uncle's men had ridden far enough beyond the gates of the palace that they couldn't help but notice two men bolting out from between the buildings on horseback, especially with the townspeople highlighting their position by gathering curiously to watch their Prince depart as suddenly as he'd arrived. The cry went up from the front of the Regent's company, and they took up pursuit of Laurent and Damianos for nearly ten miles in the opposite direction from where Laurent's own men would by now be trudging away from Arles. When a distant cluster of torchlight alerted Laurent that they were finally drawing alongside Etoi, Laurent veered in that direction. He leapt off the back of the horse. A light slap to the hindquarters sent it continuing on its way. Damianos followed suit. Hopefully, their pursuers might follow the horses for at least an additional minute or two before realising they were now riderless.
Then they took the opportunity to lose their pursuers on foot in the maze of the small village.
Laurent practically dragged Damianos's much larger frame along behind him as he cut through a narrow series of buildings. They emerged to trace a disjointed pattern around the streets, and then launched themselves over the top of a caravan of merchant's wagons. Somewhere behind them, Laurent could hear the soldiers raising their voices louder and louder in a growing mixture of panic and irritation, demanding for anyone who'd seen the two fleeing men to reveal where they'd gone. Someone replied that they obviously hadn't seen a thing, because it was the middle of the night and they'd been sound asleep until the soldiers had started making such a ruckus.
Laurent and Damianos looped around the outskirts of the town and then started more or less tracing their own steps back northwards while the confused soldiers who'd lost track of them were being dressed down by a group of local businessmen who didn't appreciate having their town torn apart in the middle of the night just to conduct a search that hadn't even yielded any results. That was nothing compared to the way the Regent would undoubtedly react when the men had to admit they'd lost track of Laurent and his supposed kidnapper. Laurent couldn't bring himself to feel too bad for them, though.
Equally, he felt no pity when, as the horizon off to their right shifted away from blackness, Damianos started falling behind slightly. It was hardly surprising, after maintaining such an expeditious pace for eight straight miles. A man with such a large build obviously wasn't designed for long-distance running. But the inevitability of it didn't mean Laurent was going to ignore the opportunity to point out any and all of Damianos's deficiencies, especially when Laurent hadn't even been at peak condition himself.
"What's the matter?" Laurent taunted. "Not enough stamina to keep up?"
Damianos looked annoyed, but he forced himself to pick up the pace again in reply, clearly unwilling to let Laurent show him up. Laurent heard him mutter, "I'm pretty sure we could have recovered the horses."
"And drawn attention back to ourselves in doing so?" Laurent asked. "Besides, the horses can't come into the forest with us when we get there anyway; the foliage is too dense."
Morning crept fully into effect well before they reached their destination. However, though they lost the cover of darkness, the light did prove helpful when, with Arles now at their backs, Laurent noticed the fresh tracks left by his men where they'd departed from the road.
Damianos looked considering as he watched Laurent following the depressions over the grass.
"What?" Laurent snapped. "Don't tell me you don't hunt in Akielos."
"We do." He was panting fairly heavily at this stage, but his words were still understandable. "I just didn't think that you would."
"You'll find I'm full of surprises."
Damianos only made an indistinct noise in reply. Laurent wasn't sure whether that was meant to be an indication of agreement or disbelief. Or perhaps it was just a sound of exertion.
Although the sun had been up for at least two hours when they found the Prince's Guard and Nicaise, they were all still asleep, except for Huet, who had clearly been left to stand watch.
"We're moving," Laurent announced loudly enough that all but three of the men immediately stirred from sleep. Beside him, Damianos made a complaining noise, presuming at not being able to take more than a few minutes to recover from their journey to arrive here. Laurent felt no sympathy at all towards him.
As soon as they saw their Prince standing over them with his arms crossed, waiting on them, the recently-woken nudged the remainder of the Guard into consciousness as well.
Laurent could tell the exact moment Nicaise was woken up, because it was punctuated by a loud curse.
"You look like shit," Nicaise said when he blearily caught sight of Damianos, who was shining with a coat of sweat.
Damianos just raised his eyebrows, as if silently saying 'better than you'. And it was true that Nicaise did look much like he'd been trampled at some point during the night. It didn't help that he'd apparently been forced by Laurent's guards to change into the least pet-like clothing they could find for him under a time constraint, so that the clothing was ill-fitting and with most of the laces left undone in their hurry.
"Ugh, I'm never sleeping on the ground again," Nicaise groaned. To Laurent, he said, "I don't care if you're the Prince; if there's only one proper mattress, don't expect that you'll be the one sleeping on it."
"Thank you for the concern. I'm glad to see you're safe as well," Laurent replied.
"Ha! Like I was going to worry about you when I was going through the world's most disgusting obstacle course. Did you know that that stupid escape tunnel you sent us into was full of cobwebs? Then we had to walk through mud so deep that it got all the way up onto my ankles. And I'm pretty sure I have more fucking pine needles than actual hair on top of my head at this point. Maybe you might enjoy the idea of the occasional roll in the muck," Nicaise sent a crude look towards Damianos, making it clear exactly what he meant, "but some of us have standards."
The faces of the soldiers around him announced loud and clear that this was hardly the first time they'd heard Nicaise whining about these things since they'd split up with Laurent last night.
"At least the Regent's soldiers probably won't recognise you looking like this if they do catch up with us," Laurent said.
"Small mercies," Nicaise responded. "They'll just think they're killing some nameless street urchin instead of the Regent's former pet. How nice for me."
"Well, the anonymity will help where we're headed," Laurent offered, knowing that to Nicaise that was no consolation.
"And where exactly are we going?" Nicaise demanded to know. "Other than probably to our deaths, that is."
"West," Laurent said simply.
They didn't argue with their Prince's decision, but even that one word was enough to cause a ripple of reaction among the men. They had probably expected Laurent to want to make for Vask. That might have been the plan if Laurent didn't intend to aim for Marlas, or if he had been able to better prepare for the journey. As it was, that route would take too long and cost them more than they'd been able to carry with them, for they would need to bribe every tribe whose lands they passed through as they made their way south through Vask.
On Laurent's order, they all set out in what, according to the current position of the sun, Laurent had plotted to be a north-westerly direction. Although the large amount of necessary supplies meant that everyone, minus Laurent and Nicaise, had to load heavy packs onto their backs, the lack of horses and wagons at least meant that while they were still in the open like this they were less visible from a distance, and once they reached the tree line they'd be able to submerge themselves behind a thick green wall in a way they never could have on horseback. Laurent found himself feeling strangely optimistic that, like this, they could at least make the border Vere shared with Galacia without anyone even seeing them, let alone thinking to intercept them.
What would happen after that was a slightly different matter, of course.
They made relatively good time throughout the day, though Laurent imagined they'd slow down tomorrow, once they properly entered the forest and were picking their way across uneven land with no straight path to follow. When Laurent was satisfied that they were far enough outside Arles's shadow for comfort, he ordered the men to set up camp. For the most part that only consisted of throwing down a few thin sleeping rolls, but Jord did produce one tent, which he and Marceau quickly erected.
"My apologies, Your Highness. I wish we could offer you something better than this," Jord said as he hammered in a pole, "but anything larger was too heavy to transport except by wagon."
"We couldn't even pack the wine," Rainier bemoaned.
"I anticipated that we'd be short on supplies and amenities for a time," Laurent said. "This is fine for now."
"Oh is it?" Nicaise asked. "I thought I made it clear that I expect a decent night's sleep from now on."
"There will be a thick layer of canvas between you and the elements," Laurent pointed out, "which is more than almost anyone else here can claim. And then in just a few short weeks, I imagine you'll be able to go back to having a bed. So you might want to take this opportunity to learn some patience, and to remember that some of us have had to wait years for the things we want."
Laurent was then distracted by the sight of Damianos laying out a pallet for himself outside, along with the soldiers. It was a wonder he hadn't just assumed he'd be given a place in the tent, considering how he usually seemed to automatically expect to be treated like royalty.
"No. You'll be inside with me," Laurent commanded him. Where Laurent could keep an eye on him, Laurent meant, though clearly some of the men thought Laurent had a different motive in mind, judging by their sly, knowing smirks.
The tent was set up just far enough away from the soldiers to give at least the illusion of privacy without unnecessarily jeopardising their safety in the event of some kind of ambush. Laurent thought they might be able to talk inside without the words carrying to the others as long as they spoke relatively quietly. Which, of course, ruled out any conversation Nicaise was part of, for the boy insisted on making himself heard by everyone in a twenty-yard radius at least. But it was probably the best Laurent could hope for given the circumstances.
Somewhat luckily, when the men started working on getting a fire going and preparing food, they did so fairly boisterously, providing an ideal amount of covering noise. Laurent took the opportunity to pointedly look at Damianos to indicate he should follow Laurent into the tent.
Before the flap could fall shut behind them, Nicaise invited himself into the tent behind them. He announced, "I have no desire to be stuck in here with you two while you're stuck in the middle of some ongoing lover's spat, so I hope you spent all those hours you were running around on your own last night working through that whole killed-your-brother, would-have-liked-to-have-you-tortured-half-to-death combination you've got going on."
"Would have liked to what?" Damianos asked, eyes narrowed at Laurent.
"Nicaise, you have no idea how much I appreciate you once again taking it upon yourself to announce things that aren't your business," Laurent said sarcastically.
"Please. Don't pretend that I didn't simplify things by telling him you knew who he was."
"I'm still surprised that you knew," Laurent admitted. "He must have been even more obvious about his identity than I realised."
Nicaise rolled his eyes and replied, "Actually, you were the obvious one. I'm stunned more people didn't put it together. I mean, you might hate Akielos, but you hate your uncle more, and you'd do almost anything to beat him, even cultivate an enemy as an ally. For you to be so focused on putting petty vengeance above that, you had to have a really fucking brilliant reason for wanting this particular Akielon to suffer. And the Regent was way too pleased with himself about the whole thing not to have somehow known in advance that he would be the key to snapping your control. There's only one Akielon he could be sure that you'd hate that much.
"Although," Nicaise added, "this idiot didn't exactly make it difficult to guess he was a prince either. He's shit at hiding the fact that he doesn't have the first clue how to take orders rather than give them. Even I probably make for a more believable common soldier than him."
"You'd better hope that you don't get the opportunity to put that to the test," Damianos said.
"That's something to consider," said Laurent. "When the time comes that battle breaks out, Rochert and Huet will have their own safety, and that of the whole group, to look out for," he informed Nicaise. "Unlike in the palace, I won't be able to assign them to focus solely on you. In the event that you end up in the middle of a fight, it would benefit you greatly if you were at least able to deflect a stray sword stroke."
"And what, you think you're going to teach me?" Nicaise asked incredulously. Damianos's face seemed to reflect some of that same sentiment. "I might as well give myself up for dead now, then." Then Nicaise seemed to rethink this. Smirking, he said, "Though if you're offering to embarrass yourself with a sword in front of everyone, I'm not going to stop you. It'll probably be the best entertainment I get in the next few weeks."
That was how, the following evening, when the sun was low along the horizon and the men were busy setting up camp and dinner again for the night, Laurent offered Nicaise a long stick in lieu of a wooden practice sword.
"What, am I supposed to poke someone's eye out with this?" Nicaise scoffed.
"Yes," Laurent surprised him by saying. "If something like this is the only potential weapon you have at hand when you're being attacked, that's exactly what you should do. If, however, you actually put in some effort and learn how to handle a weapon safely now, then I'll give you a sword to carry around so you won't have to be caught so unprepared."
The men seemed to be intent on watching as Laurent started showing Nicaise how to stand, to the point that they were distracted from the camp set-up. Laurent sent an icy glare their way, at which point they all suddenly found something important to do so they wouldn't have to meet his eyes and acknowledge that they'd been slacking.
Laurent had to correct his stance a few times, but perhaps unsurprisingly, once Laurent pointed out the similarities between swordplay and dancing, Nicaise's balance and agility in motion both actually seemed quite good. However, the rest of his 'technique' needed work, to put it mildly. Of course, Laurent knew better than anyone that mastery of the sword didn't happen overnight. It was incredibly unlikely, in fact, that Nicaise would ever in his life be even a tenth as good as Laurent, because he grew too easily frustrated to single-mindedly train himself as Laurent had done. Surprisingly, though, he didn't actually give up when things didn't progress as fast as he'd have liked. He obviously had a strong desire to do whatever he could to ensure his own survival, if nothing else.
Annoyingly, Laurent apparently wasn't the only one thinking along those lines.
"You're taking it more seriously than I expected," Damianos called out to Nicaise.
"Shouldn't you be working with the rest of the men?" Laurent said, but even as he said it he could see that the work was done, and the other men were back to watching as well, albeit from further away than where Damianos had propped himself against a tree just fifteen feet away.
"I thought you could use a hand."
"I don't need your assistance."
"No, apparently not," Damianos said, sounding gratifyingly impressed that Laurent seemed to know his way around a sword (or a stick, at the moment, but the point still stood). "I actually meant that you could use a second pair of hands correcting Nicaise's form."
"Like I'd let you touch me," Nicaise said. "Besides, you're just over here to laugh at me, not to help me."
"I don't mock anyone who's actually putting in a decent effort," Damianos disagreed.
"A lot of effort for little benefit," Nicaise griped. "That's the exact opposite of what I expected when my parents sent me off to Arles because they figured I was pretty enough to stop taxing their coffers and instead earn my keep on my back."
Damianos looked ill at that, a weakness that Nicaise instantly picked up on.
"What's the matter? You don't want to be reminded of the realities of the world for those of us not born with silver spoons shoved up our asses? Well you'd better learn to deal with it. The rest of us do."
Angrily, Nicaise swung his makeshift practice sword hard at Laurent. Too hard to fully control the motion, in fact, making it easy for Laurent to redirect the wooden tip of the sword away from his chest before it could connect. The stick cracked from the impact, though; that was something.
"Good start. But that's enough for today, I think. The food smells ready." Laurent indicated for Nicaise to follow him towards where dinner was being scooped into bowls.
Nicaise tossed aside his stick as if he were disgusted by it, but he did somewhat obediently trail after Laurent despite his petulant mood. "Please. If it really was good, I'd have got at least one hit in by now. That was pathetic. That fucker Orlant was outright laughing at me."
Laurent said, "I daresay he was laughing at me using a random stick I picked up off the ground to fight you, actually."
"And why are we using sticks? Because you think I can't handle a fucking sword, obviously. How am I supposed to keep myself alive against trained fighters if you think I'm going to lop off my own arm the minute you let me wave a sword around?"
It was Damianos who said, "You should probably start by not 'waving the sword around' at all. For you, it's not going to be about large swings, or beating someone with superior strength, or even really using the best technique. It'll be about getting in under his guard for just a moment, and being willing to take full advantage of whatever small opportunities you're given."
As if he suddenly realised what he was saying, Damianos's eyes slid over to Laurent, who tasted bile at those words. It wasn't as if Laurent had forgotten that this was the same man who'd found a way to take advantage of Auguste's momentary lapse, but the fresh reminder was still difficult to stomach. Laurent longed to react, to accuse. But he could hardly comment now, in the middle of a circle of his men. And anyway, what good would starting up a fight like that do when Laurent unfortunately needed him to cooperate for now? Better to wait until they could clash the way Laurent really wanted to.
It might have been Laurent's imagination, but Damianos sounded slightly discomfited as, having realised that Laurent wasn't going to say anything for once, he continued to Nicaise, "For you, the main advantage is that you'll undoubtedly be underestimated. No one will look at you and see a threat. In a battle, attackers are unlikely to focus on you when there are full-grown experienced soldiers to deal with first. Use that to your advantage. The Prince should be able to help you with that."
Laurent's lip curled downwards. "You think I don't come across as a threat?"
Damianos shrugged. "Physically? Absolutely. Don't pretend you don't know that and take advantage of it. I'd guess you purposely keep your fighting ability secret precisely so that you're underestimated. How many people outside your Prince's Guard, who must have seen it first hand, would suspect for a moment that you can probably fight better than most of the career soldiers in Vere?"
"Damn straight," Orlant butted in. "You haven't even seen him fight properly, either. It's something to behold."
Laurent glared at Orlant for inviting himself into the conversation. All he got in response was an unapologetic shrug.
"That's true, I haven't seen it," said Damianos. "And to be honest, I didn't think I ever would see that." It was clear that Damianos had thought Laurent would be the kind of commander to send his men into battle without ever touching his own sword. "But now I've seen the way you move when you teach Nicaise. I've seen your footwork, and the strength of your wrist, not to mention your focus. I know the signs of a well-trained swordsman when I see him in action."
"Of course you do," Laurent said bitterly. "All the better to cut him down."
Damianos unexpectedly leaned right up close into his personal space. Despite him being a known killer with an equally known disdain towards Laurent, Laurent hadn't feared for his safety in Damianos's presence at all since he'd convinced him that his only real chance at eventual freedom was working with Laurent rather than against him. It would also be unaccountably foolish of Damianos to attack Laurent in the middle of his Guard. Despite this, Laurent nearly reached for the knife on his belt at that moment to fend Damianos off. But the near knee-jerk reaction wasn't actually because Laurent thought his life was in danger. It was because it looked almost like Damianos was aiming for a kiss.
Instead, Damianos's mouth missed Laurent's lips and came to hover an inch away from Laurent's cheekbone instead.
"I don't intend to strike at you unless you give me reason," Damianos whispered into Laurent's ear, which was already full of the sound of his own pounding heart. "If we meet on opposite sides of the battlefield, that's one thing. But for all that you had me beaten, and put me in the ring, and maybe even planned to do worse assuming Nicaise's words weren't just lies meant to rile me up, you still have yet to raise a sword against me directly. I don't fight men who aren't armed with the intent to use their weapon on me."
It might almost have been Auguste saying those words, if Laurent closed his eyes and ignored the slightest of accents with which Damianos spoke Veretian. Laurent's eyes were purposely wide.
Clearly the men couldn't hear a word of it, as Damianos obviously had intended, for Marceau cat-called, "Hey now, save the dirty talk for inside the tent!" The other men laughed.
"Fuck off, I have to share that tent with them," Nicaise said, causing another round of laughter.
All the while, Laurent ignored them all, staring silently at Damianos, who'd leaned back just far enough to meet Laurent's eyes. Don't pretend to have a superior sense of honour, Laurent wanted to say.
Somehow, though, those words never quite made it past his lips.
Laurent abruptly rose to his feet, ignoring the fact that his meal was only half finished, and stalked away from the fire, and away from the men. Away from Damianos.
Thankfully, none of the men followed. They knew better by now.
Laurent needed time on his own to think.
So nine months is a perfectly respectable amount of time between updates, right?
The next day when they stopped just before darkness fell, Herluin asked Nicaise to give him a hand putting up the royal tent while the rest of Laurent's Guard fanned out and checked the vicinity to make sure the area was really as deserted as it seemed at first.
"Would you like me to bend over for you on command too?" Nicaise asked snidely. He then pointedly wandered over to where the guards' sleeping rolls were all lined up in a few tidy rows and kicked dirt all over where Herluin's was laid out.
Herluin looked to Laurent, as if Laurent were actually capable of disciplining Nicaise in a way that wouldn't just bring further annoyed rebellion down on the whole group, or that he could be bothered doing so for such a small infringement. Laurent instead called out to Damianos, ordering him to clean and remake Herluin's pallet. He took no small amount of pleasure in Damianos's barely-concealed grimace at having to bend to Laurent's will yet again to maintain appearances.
All the while, Laurent noted that even after only a day and in the midst of all the upheaval, and despite his apparent disregard towards the men and the running of camp alike, Nicaise had clearly already bothered to memorise the sleeping positions. He couldn't grasp how the court at Arles had ever written Nicaise off as only being concerned with his jewels and silks and his own personal form of spiteful entertainment. Then again, they couldn't claim Laurent's level of understanding of the situation; boys like Nicaise only survived if they were prepared to adapt to whatever circumstances they found themselves in, and if they always made sure to know their best escape route. Nicaise was probably more aware of his surroundings than any of them, apart from Laurent.
With that in mind, Laurent ordered Herluin to leave Nicaise be and said nothing else to him. Or to any of the men, for that matter.
"I understand why you hate me," said Damianos when he was finished cleaning up after Nicaise's little tantrum, "but why do you treat your men so coldly?"
"How would you like me to act with them? Should I go join them while they talk of fucking stable boys and what spreading a woman's legs would be like, if only they were allowed? They're soldiers. I'm a prince. It's natural for me to retain distance."
"You could still show them you're human every so often."
"Who says I am?"
Damianos grumbled, "Now there's a good point."
"You know, in future if you have anything to say to me we should talk in Akielon so the men can't understand."
"If memory serves, your Akielon is terrible," Damianos countered.
"Then it would be in your best interests to help me improve it before we land in Akielos, wouldn't it? It would be a shame if Nikandros openly attacked us while you were still in my custody because I mispronounced some word and managed to declare war without meaning to."
Damianos rolled his eyes. "You know, I might have come with you, but that doesn't mean I have any reason to want to help you more than is necessary to get myself back home to Akielos. Or have you forgotten that you set me up to be attacked in the ring?"
You did the same to me, Laurent didn't say. And Laurent could have done far worse to him. He nearly had.
"Believe me, you couldn't possibly find the idea of us working together more distasteful than I do. I suggest that, as Nicaise would say, you get the fuck over it, since I don't recall you having a choice in the matter," Laurent pointed out. "This is your only viable chance to leave here. You're hardly much less conspicuous on the road than you were in the palace; without my help, if my uncle's men pursued you, you wouldn't make it even a fraction of the distance towards the border without being captured."
"And so I should just trust you?" Damianos asked, incredulous.
"I've already made it clear that my reasons aren't entirely altruistic. If nothing else, trust my desire to look out for my own interests."
Nicaise snorted from where he'd been listening in (not particularly stealthily, since Laurent had known he was there all along) behind a tree a few feet away. "Trust my ability to make you put those interests first, you mean," he corrected. "Without me, you'd probably still be in Arles bowing and scraping to your Uncle and hoping the guillotine wasn't about to fall on your neck at any minute."
"And this is just one of the reasons we should converse in your language rather than mine," Laurent pointed out. "Less chance of that happening."
"I doubt a change of language will be enough to stop him from interrupting," Damianos said.
"No," Laurent acknowledged. "But at least then I could rub it in his smug little face that he doesn't understand what we're saying."
Nicaise wasn't very good at concealing his outrage. Damianos was apparently even less practised at hiding his emotions, for laughed outright, loudly and without a trace of bitterness. Laurent thought it was the first time he'd ever heard that sound from him.
They did, in fact, speak in Akielon after dinner, when Laurent pulled out his maps and asked for Damianos's input on their best possible course of action.
"Other than to not travel to Galacia in the first place," Laurent amended.
"You can't expect we're going to receive a warm welcome there," said Damianos. "It's my understanding that they hate Vere even more than most Akielons do."
Galacia had been part of Vere until only a few centuries ago, and had been an ally of Vere until even more recently, providing naval support in return for trade and access to Vere's much larger land-based armies. After they had supported Vere in its campaign to claim Delfeur some hundred years ago, however, Galacia's post-war economy had failed. No Veretian would ever put it in terms so unflattering to themselves, of course, but Laurent had read a record of the breaking of the treaty between Vere and Galacia, and he could read between the lines: the then-King of Vere hadn't seen any benefit in continuing the alliance with Galacia's resources so depleted, and so Vere had refused to offer aid to help Galacia get back on its feet. Most of Galacia's fleet had ultimately been allowed to turn to privateering out of desperation, and it had devolved until piracy and raiding had now basically become the main way of life for a large percentage of the population, so that no one living could remember when the sailors served the Crown rather than themselves.
The memory of Vere's abandonment of them was still apparently sharp, though, passed down the generations through prejudice and hatred. It was hardly a safe place for a crew of Veretians to travel through. But there were no safe options at this point.
"If the locals take exception to us travelling through their land and we get into a fight, this group is unlikely to have a numbers advantage," Damianos pointed out.
"The reason your men might survive longer than a few minutes if it comes down to a fight is if they are organised. However, that requires them to have a sure leader following sound battle strategy, which is a problem; while you may be a more accomplished fighter than I expected, you have no experience with commanding a troop in practice."
"But I do have many years' worth of experience at battling with my wits alone. And where I can't find a way to avoid a fight altogether, you certainly have ample experience on the battlefield. Remember, it's in your best interest to help me get all of us to our destination in one piece."
"Your men aren't going to follow my command."
"No, they won't," Laurent agreed. "But they'll follow mine, and I'm a quick study."
"You want me to teach you tactical warfare? When I'll have no guarantee that you won't use what I've taught you against my people if we actually manage to make it to Akielos?"
"I have little interest in clashing swords against Nikandros and his men," Laurent admitted.
Laurent didn't bother to lie. "You have more immediate concerns than a battle that might happen months or years from now, I think."
Damianos sighed, but the next day he was studying the way Laurent's men assembled themselves as they walked with a critical eye, and by early evening he was detailing how they might use even such a small number to their advantage if it came to it.
They got into a routine of discussing ideas that had come up during the day's walk in the evenings, as soon as the tent had been erected to provide them with some measure of isolation from the others so they wouldn't be seen pouring over maps and drawing diagrams to represent formations. Then they would return to debating strategies after dinner well into the night, until Nicaise finally snapped at them to shut up already so that he could sleep.
It wasn't unheard of for Nicaise to interrupt their discussions at other times, of course. One evening in particular, he barrelled into the tent demanding, "Give me a knife."
"I wouldn't trust you to know how to use one," said Laurent.
"I know which end to hold. If that's not enough, then hurry up and teach me."
"You'd do better to ask Rochert, if the knife's to be your weapon of choice," Laurent admitted.
Or perhaps Damianos, he thought, remembering how effectively he'd dealt with the would-be-assassins who'd been armed with knives. Though admittedly he'd more used them against each other than used their knives against them, so perhaps not.
"Rochert's not going to hand me a weapon without knowing why, and he's even less likely to help if he figures out that it's because the knife is better than the sword if I don't want Orlant to see the blade coming until I've already cut off something precious to him."
"And what exactly has Orlant done to you to earn himself such a fate?" Laurent asked as calmly as he could manage, though he had no doubt that Nicaise could detect the dangerous edge to the question. Laurent trusted his men to a certain point, but Laurent had certainly uncovered bad apples in their midst before. If Orlant had touched Nicaise, years of loyal service wouldn't stop Laurent from castrating him himself.
"When I tried to get him to give me his sword to practice with, he just laughed in my fucking face and told me to wait until I was taller than the sword is long."
The coiled tension left Laurent's body.
Nicaise narrowed his eyes at Damianos when his badly-stifled laughter escaped him. "Don't think you won't be the next in line to be run through as soon as I get a real sword."
"That won't happen until you know how to use it," Damianos pointed out. "Come on. You can watch me trounce Orlant for you. And then I'll run some drills with you afterwards. It's been too long since I've trained myself."
"Yes," Laurent muttered, "I can see you're practically wasting away."
"I'm not going to thank you for avenging my honour or whatever you think you're doing," Nicaise said suspiciously.
Damianos, very pointedly, asked, "What honour?"
Laurent couldn't help the way his lips quirked upwards.
Nicaise narrowed his eyes at them both, but he still said, "Fine. But you'd better show Orlant up properly. If he doesn't end up on his ass at least once, I'll find a way to make you regret going easy on him."
Laurent didn't watch the fight, for all that he was interested in seeing Damianos's skills up close. Orlant did look worse for it at dinner, though, and Nicaise wasn't complaining at the top of his lungs, so Laurent assumed Damianos had won handily. He could see no signs that Orlant was angry at Damianos, though. That wasn't surprising. Orlant loved a good fight. He probably wanted a rematch as soon as possible.
They were all probably spoiling for a fight at this point, Laurent realised. It was one thing to spend months in the palace without clashing with anyone other than official sparring during training, but quite another for things to remain so quiet out here, where everyone was naturally expecting an attack to come at any moment and from any direction. With their current on-edge attitudes, dishevelled clothing and unpolished boots, and in the absence of their distinctive starburst livery, Laurent could almost have mistaken them for the drunkards and layabouts and hot-tempered brawlers he'd initially recruited for his Prince's Guard, if not for the way they kept to their crisp lines when they marched. At least they would fit in perfectly inside the borders of Galacia.
Well. Most of them would.
"He'd have made a better pet than a soldier," Nicaise sneered as he crossed his arms and sprawled casually against Laurent once he'd tossed his empty dinner bowl to the side, making Laurent bear most of his weight out of what seemed to be pure laziness.
Those were words that had been uttered, more than once, about Laurent. And truly, if someone were looking at the two of them sitting there right now, Laurent wondered which of them would look more like a pet to an unknowing eye. Nicaise probably had a more natural grasp of the casual proprietary nature of a master than Laurent. Certainly, Nicaise seemed intent on treating Laurent as if his sole purpose in life was to do whatever Nicaise needed at any particular moment, including acting as a makeshift leaning post right now. They might easily have been mistaken for a very young noble and his first older pet, had Laurent been dressed in silks instead of his usual dark layers.
But Laurent knew Nicaise wasn't talking about him, because although he wouldn't have hesitated to say it to Laurent's face, he was staring off towards a distant gathering of some of the guards.
Laurent said, "You've got that same tone you use when you're disparaging the slave, but I know you can't be talking about him; he'd have made a ridiculous pet, even if that was the mould my uncle hoped I would try to press him into over time."
"No, not him. The one panting over your idiot Captain."
"He acts spoiled enough sometimes to have been a pet," Laurent allowed. "But for all that he might be prettier than any of the other soldiers, I doubt he'd have been enough to hold the court's attention for more than the first few days, and even then it would have been only down to the novelty."
"Exactly. So when I say he'd have done better at that than his current occupation, I mean that he truly is a piss poor soldier. He'll probably be the first to die when trouble inevitably comes."
Laurent might have countered that that would more likely be Nicaise if he didn't hurry up and learn how to wield a weapon properly himself – at least Aimeric managed with a real sword, if not well – but Laurent had no intention of letting harm come to Nicaise.
"You should tell your Captain to stop sticking his dick in him well before that happens," Nicaise added. "The last thing you need is the guy who runs this lot to become even more useless because he's heartsick from mourning."
"I'm not accustomed to dictating to my soldiers whom they can bed, unless they're breaking the taboo or inviting one of my uncle's spies into our midst," Laurent said. "And why all of this concern? Don't tell me that you have designs on Jord yourself."
Nicaise snorted indelicately. "Please. The fact that he's the only one of the other soldiers whose face doesn't look like a horse's ass might be enough for Aimeric, but I'd sooner fuck your Akielon beast than that moron. Not that he's ever out of your presence for long enough."
Oh, of course. They weren't really talking about Jord at all. "He's not 'my' anything. I simply understand that he has certain skills that will make it simpler for us to do what's necessary. Nothing more."
"Most of the soldiers would say otherwise. Though I'm more inclined to agree with the ones that think you're too frigid to ever fuck him. After weeks sharing a room and then a tent with you, I've still seen no evidence that you aren't missing some key pieces of equipment."
"Would you prefer that I order you to attend to me instead of the slave so you can check for yourself?"
"Fuck off. I'm not a servant."
Neither was Damianos. And yet in the space of just a few days, he had already resigned himself to loosening Laurent's laces without complaint whenever Laurent held out his wrist expectantly. Laurent had expected to feel smug about reducing him to an errand boy who had to attend to Laurent's every whim, but somehow the hours that Damianos had spent working gently at Laurent's laces didn't inspire Laurent to triumphantly lord it over him the way he had when he'd made Damianos clean up Herluin's sleep roll. Laurent wasn't sure he wanted to dwell on why that might be.
It only took another two days of walking before they were across the border. The forest density was petering out enough that it wouldn't be able to hide them anyway by that point, so they emerged from the uneven ground out onto the proper road to make their travels quicker and less taxing. Besides, if they were going to be visible anyway, better that they looked like they weren't trying to hide.
The further from the border they made it, the less likely anyone would question where they'd originated from. So Laurent was initially thankful that it took several hours before they encountered anyone. It was a solitary rider. Laurent was well aware that he might be a bandit with a group of friends ready to ambush them at any moment, but even if that was the case, there weren't a lot of places in this open area to lay in wait so they could launch an attack. And the sight of Damianos alone would probably be enough to deter most smaller groups from taking their chances against them.
Bandit or not, it turned out that they apparently weren't yet far enough from Vere that they didn't immediately earn suspicion.
"Who're you?" the Galacian man called out harshly.
"Who's asking?" Laurent demanded in turn, matching tone for tone. It would do them no good to seem too obliging in a place like this.
Galacia and Vere shared a language, but the dialects and accents had diverged more than enough over time that Laurent knew none of them would pass for locals. So it was entirely expected when the man, with an air of suspicion, said, "I'm Pedras. And you're Veretian, yes?" He looked up the road in the direction they'd been walking from, which led back towards Vere.
"Kemptian," Laurent lied. "We spent the better part of the last year in Vere taking advantage of trade, but rumour is that Vere is about to go to war. Leave them to it, we say. Let them all get themselves killed and we'll sweep in and claim whatever's left."
Pedras looked somewhat mollified by that. "Mmm, that'd be nice. I suppose Kemptians are all right, aren't they? I heard Kempt cut off ties with Vere first chance they got and left them to the Akielons. Serves the Veretians right."
"Yeah. Fucking Veretians," Nicaise chimed in a little too gleefully.
"You said it, kid."
"I mean, look at the way I had to dress just so we could blend in with those fools," Nicaise added, conveying his very real disgust at his 'disguise' to sell it.
"That's a crying shame. You can get proper threads in Juerta about a half day's ride up the road, if you got the coin." The man looked speculative at that, as if wondering whether, if they did have money, he could find a way to earn some of it himself. Or steal it, more likely.
"Are there horses for sale in Juerta?" Nicaise asked. "Because my feet are fucking raw from walking. And running."
Laurent strongly considered stomping on one of Nicaise's apparently sore feet to shut him up before he said something more revealing than he should, for he showed no signs of closing his mouth otherwise. Laurent had a feeling Nicaise was greatly enjoying having someone new to listen to his complaints.
"Ha! Had to make a quick getaway from a bit of thievery that went south, did you? I know how that goes. Well lucky you, 'cause I know a man who deals in breeding good horses."
Laurent shook his head and, so that Pedras wouldn't get it in his head to direct them into a trap thinking he could rob them blind, Laurent said, "Sorry. We don't have the funds to cover that. As you say: our last job went south. Anyway, we're just heading through to the port at Avieda, looking for a ship." Glaring at Nicaise, and receiving a glare right back, he added, "It's only a few days' walk. We'll manage."
Pedras looked disappointed, probably at the idea that he wouldn't be able to get any money out of them. "No ship will take over a dozen people for less gold than would be needed to buy a few horses, though."
"Not even for a cut of a substantial payment on arrival?" By Laurent's side, Damianos twitched, likely at the prospect of Laurent paying his way with Akielon funds. "I'm given to understand that speculative outings are hardly unheard of in Galacia."
"This isn't exactly what we discussed," Damianos hissed.
Something of the avaricious gleam returned to Pedras's eyes. "Oh, it's that kind of trip is it? You've got a mark lined up?"
"You could say that," said Laurent.
"Well, you'd have to negotiate for that kind of deal. Most people prefer payment up front."
"I wonder why that might be," Laurent said drolly.
"But as it happens, my cousin's a crewman on a ship that docks in Avieda. I might be able to send a message on ahead to the port and fix up a deal for you. Assuming this little trip of yours is going to be lucrative enough to make it worth everyone's while."
"Oh, believe me," Laurent said, "it'll be worth a king's ransom."