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The day was perfect. That much could be seen from Damen’s view of Delpha through the open window, nearby where he sat at his desk. He scowled at stacks of papers that seemed to multiply before his very eyes, obligations that kept him bound for far longer than he hoped to be. As a boy, Damen often felt a similar sentiment on days like this, watching his father toil through the tedious, clerical portion of his duties as King—composing trade agreements, drafting letters of correspondence and laws—but until he took the throne and held those responsibilities himself, Damen had not fully empathized. How could he?

Now, he knew better.

Damen gazed out, longingly, resolved that it was too beautiful to be anywhere but there and, more significantly, too close to Laurent’s ascension to focus on anything else with clarity. The event required extensive planning and preparation, but it was the man Damen wished to attend.

He found his eyes, along with his mind, naturally drifting to Laurent, lounging in his chair across the room, his legs tucked beneath him. His nose was in a book, his hair draped like golden silk in front of his eyes, shielding them. It was long enough now that it nearly reached his shoulders, dancing in the cool, tempting breeze that swept the room. He was even more beautiful than the day, and he would be King of Vere.

He was King of Vere, sixth of his name, and the last. He would wear the crown, rightfully, and Damen would watch with pride as they placed it upon his head in eight days’ time. Until then, they would remain in Delpha, the center of their shared kingdoms. It would hold their new palace someday, a symbol of unity in a location largely known for division and contention. Damen could hardly wait for ground to break, eager for he and Laurent to truly have a dwelling of their own, quarters specifically built for them, together.

He could imagine them here, easily, forever.

An added bonus, the weather in Delpha was perfect for Laurent: overcast, but warm enough to keep him comfortable in Akielon dress or adequately cool in Veretian. Temperatures were milder at the center, without the harsh, blistering summers of Ios and the piercing, icy winters of Vere at polarized ends. It was one reason, of many, that they chose it.

Today, Damen longed to take Laurent riding, to explore the town and surrounding lands with him, to have their lunch served in the gardens, perhaps. There were adventures to share, memories to be made.

Instead, Damen worked, a daydream in his head, and Laurent read, though the activity seemed to be without its usual leisure, for some reason or another. It was almost too obvious, as much as he huffed and fidgeted, for Laurent was a study in outward calmness. When immersed in one of his books on a good day, no matter the subject, he possessed a talent for remaining impressively still, draping himself over Damen or curling up somewhere for longer periods than Damen would ever entertain on his own.

Laurent shifted positions in his seat, again, and their eyes met as he sighed, dramatically. Despite Laurent’s immediate, quiet smile, and the soft flush that rose to his cheeks upon finding eyes on him, Damen sensed his unease in the air, like he might detect the coming of a rain storm. With the ascension so close, it stood to reason, though unlikely, that Laurent would be nervous, but it was best to let him come clean on his own time. Damen found that he would, eventually.

Still, Damen was impatient.

“What are you reading?” he asked, both curious and eager for further distraction, hopeful Laurent would voice what disturbed him.

Laurent’s sweet smile transformed into a knowing, defiant smirk, and Damen braced himself for what he knew to be coming.

“Have you finished your work then?”

He blew out a breath and lied, “Yes.”

“Yes?” Laurent challenged, unconvinced for good reason. He ran his fingers through his hair, pushing it out of his face before it parted once more and cascaded down to frame it, beautifully, alluringly.

“A King decides when his work is done,” Damen declared, pushing away from the table and rising to go to him. Laurent closed his book, but otherwise remained still.

“I’ll be King in less than a fortnight,” he noted, thoughtfully, “Then what will I decide?”

It was less a question meant to be answered, more a proclamation that resonated beyond the confines of their current conversation: Laurent would rule. Decisions were his to be made, Vere in his hands. He seemed, for a rare moment, bewildered at the thought, though Damen had never seen hands, or a mind, more capable, more deserving of loyal, lasting allegiance.

“Whatever you wish. You certainly don’t require my counsel for that,” Damen told him, sinking to his knees before Laurent, rather than sitting beside him. Their height was even this way, Damen’s hands firm on his thighs as he gradually leaned in, sliding upward until they reached the leather binding of the book closed between them.

He wished to ease Laurent from the nagging thoughts of his mind; Laurent wished to continue talking.

“Require? No,” he said, then, honestly, quietly, “But I do desire it. I—treasure it. Deeply.”

Laurent placed his hand over Damen’s and squeezed, as if to anchor himself in his own vulnerability. To depend upon another was a relatively new development, as was to express it in words, Damen knew. His heart clenched in his chest, the moment taking a turn for intimacy he had not expected. To solidly have Laurent’s trust still felt an honor, the weight of it grounding, inspiring Damen, every day, to prove himself worthy of it.

“You will always have it, my love,” Damen assured him, seriously, with a hand to the back of his neck to draw him in, then, teasing, “Even when you don’t want to hear it.”

“Especially when I don’t want to hear it, you mean,” Laurent giggled, absently tossing the forgotten book from his lap. In his periphery, Damen saw what it was, and it was enough, even in his haste to kiss Laurent, to inspire a double-take just before their lips met.

He pulled back, puzzled. “That is a detailed history of Akielos?”

Laurent’s cheeks flushed a deeper shade of red, despite his efforts to conceal it. Damen thought, instinctively, that what troubled Laurent must lie within its pages, or at the very least the subjects were somehow related. He rarely did anything for nothing.

“So it is,” Laurent said, purposefully dismissive.

Damen raised an eyebrow.

“What?” Laurent deflected, voice rising an octave in his own defense, much to Damen’s amusement. “I’m brushing up. I find yours to be a—fascinating culture.”

An obvious lie.

“You do not,” Damen accused. Silence.

“Laurent.”

“Fine, you’ve caught me,” Laurent huffed. “I don’t.”

“Then what?”

Laurent drew in a long breath, pressed his mouth into a hard line that Damen knew well, then reopened it to speak, “This will be the first time something like this has ever been done in our history, or yours.”

“Yes,” Damen said, “But kingdoms align every day.”

They had already discussed the union at length, with their respective councils, small and full. It was done. It would work. It would prosper. Damen found it hard to believe Laurent was still troubled by the idea.

The smile that ghosted his lips, indeed, suggested it was something else. “Is that what this is?” Laurent asked, “A typical alliance?”

“No,” Damen said, “Akielos is yours. Its people will serve you as they serve me—as their King.”

“And its nobles will attend my ascension,” Laurent added, leading.

“Yes,” Damen repeated, unsure of where exactly he was being led.

A moment of silence passed before Laurent spoke again. Damen’s knees were growing tired of their position on the floor, though he did not move. Instead, he tucked a strand of golden hair behind Laurent’s ear and trailed a finger along his jaw, before bringing his hand back to Laurent’s thigh.

“Akielon ascensions are relatively simple, in comparison,” Laurent started, without malice. It was a simple observation, a conclusion of his studies. “In Vere, it’s much different.”

“Vere is much different.”

An understatement.

“Yes,” Laurent said. He bit his lower lip. Damen waited. “On the first night, it is customary for the King to engage in—There is to be a ball—one of many—and a formal dance. Traditionally, the King would be presented with his—” Damen watched him search for the proper word “—partner, to the people.”

The significance of what Laurent was asking hit Damen at once, and suddenly, Laurent’s days of unease were made clear: It would be the first formal outing of their union, and on such a grand scale. It was one thing for Damen to stand by, supportively, during his ascension and join him on the throne afterwards. It was another, in Laurent’s mind, especially, for them to be presented to the court as one whole, to dance in the traditional Veretian step in front of their people, for Damen to be known, officially, as Laurent’s partner in every sense, in rule and in life beyond it.

“I want everyone to know,” Laurent said, “Without doubt or speculation, beyond gossip, that you are mine.”

Damen wanted to speak, but he could not, caught in the sincerity of Laurent’s face, in the weight of his words. Talk of their relationship ran rampant throughout the kingdom. Every person knew something different, or so they thought, and nothing was said with perfect clarity. He and Laurent had heard it themselves on the road with Charls a short time ago. Such a presentation at Laurent’s ascension would put all hearsay to rest.

He leaned forward and pressed his mouth to Laurent’s, gently cupping his face in both hands. The kiss was soft, yet full of emotion Damen could feel in the quiver of Laurent’s lips.

“I am yours,” Damen said, with only enough room for murmurs between them. “It would be my honor to dance with you, Laurent. Now and always. I, too, want our people to know.”

The tension melted from Laurent as he eased into the next kiss, as if he actually feared Damen would deny him. Damen would deny him nothing, within reason, for as long as he lived.

“That makes me very happy,” Laurent smiled against his mouth. Damen rose to his feet, suddenly, reveling in the pout on Laurent’s face at no longer being kissed. He extended his hand for Laurent to rise as well.

“Where are we going?” Laurent asked, hesitating with his hand in Damen’s.

“I thought you were teaching me to dance proper like the Veretians?” Damen smirked.

“Now?”

“You’ve only given me a week to learn!” Damen said, tugging Laurent from his seat and spinning him gracefully before gathering him into his arms. Laurent’s hands rested upon his chest, easing upward to his shoulders and neck, exploring as Laurent often did.

“You’ll require less than that,” Laurent assured him, a bit breathless, pulling Damen down to meet his mouth.

“Ah, ah,” Damen admonished, brushing their lips together, teasingly, “You’ve yet to finish your work.”

Laurent laughed to himself, a sweet, loving sound.

“A King decides when his work is done,” he said, and tugged harder.

Damen went.