the boy arrives at the gates a month after the bells rang. he’s wearing a drape of filthy cloth, and his hair is messy and unkempt, falling over a pale starved face. he is barefoot. refugee-faced, hollow-cheeked, and missing teeth, he crawls to the gate.
“where is he?” the boy asks, his mouth as dry and cracked as the earth. “i want to – i want to see.”
he doesn’t have to elaborate. the gard points him to where the regent rots. the boy limps, leaning heavily on a misshapen stick. he spits at the feet of the stake, and raises his face up, sun bathing his sallow, waxy skin, and smiles until his cheeks ache with it.
he limps back to the gate.
“are you a refugee?” the guard asks.
“no,” says the boy. “i know someone in the city.”
the guard warms instantly. “family?” he questions.
the child shrugs, skinny, mosquito bitten shoulders raising. “sure.”
they let him through, and he stumbles through the busy streets.
in laurent’s dreams, nicaise is alive. in laurent’s dreams, he laughs like the sun, and his teeth are bright in the light of day. in laurent’s dreams, the salty drops of the ios sea cling to nicaise’s long lashes, and he lounges in shade like a great big cat, uncollared, and there’s no jewelry on him, and his skin is clean of paint and bruises.
he wakes up from these dreams crying.
ios is a big city, and he is just a child. it takes him nearly four days to stumble his way to the palace. he sleeps at the gates, another four mornings until the gates open for petitioners. a king slave gives him bread on his way to the market, and he makes it last until the final morning.
in laurent’s dreams, nicaise is dead, and he is smiling. he sits on a golden swing, transparent in the moonlight, and watches curiously, and his eyes are big as saucers, or else, he’s holding auguste’s hand, and the two of them, matching blue eyes, and matching knowing smiles, wave at him from a place he can’t yet follow, and he wakes up clawing at his own throat, thinking it should have been me, it should have been me.
laurent sits in his throne, fingers tracing idly the golden rim of the cuff hidden by the laces of his shirt. he listens to the petitioners with a half ear. he doesn’t have to answer them just yet – damen does a good enough job of that. they just need to see him. a united front.
his head hurts too much to speak. he can’t sleep, because every time he closes his eyes nicaise’s head rolls on the ground, blue eyes and bare white bone stripped of rotten muscle.
a pile of filthy canvas approaches.
“my petition is for king laurent,” a high, unbroken voice bounces off the blinding white columns of the room. that elicits a few gasps. rarely do people address their new foreign king.
laurent’s bones sing with grief, when he motions for the child – it can surely be nothing but – to speak.
“you promised me,” says the child, and laurent’s heart is in his throat. “to come back for my contract.”
the room spins. Laurent grips the armrests of his throne, and beside him damen ha sturned to stone. laurent shakes his head.
“i don’t know who you are,” he forces out at last, through gritted teeth. it’s a joke. a cruel joke from one of his uncle’s last supporters, and whoever has done it will pay dearly. this filthy child, starving, with his matted brown curls, and face smeared with mud… probably wanted a gold piece to feed his family. but whoever put him to it…
“are you saying you made no promise?”
the guards make a move, and laurent motions them back. “i did. but it wasn’t to you, whoever you are. you can tell whoever has sent you, that the message is received, and i am unmoved.”
“i don’t have a master,” the child insists, his voice raising in a painfully familiar way. finidng a boy with the same voice… it must have been a courtier. “because i waited for you, and when you didn’t come, i came here to find you.”
“stop this,” laurent says. “please, i am so tired.”
he waves a dismissive hand for the guards to take this lying snake away.
“why won’t you believe me?” screams the boy. “i believed you. even when you didn’t come, i believed you! you said you’d make him stop, but you didn’t.”
laurent stands up so fast, he feels sick. “enough with this charade,” he snarls. “i told you it’s enough!”
“you promised,” nicaise wails, “why won’t you believe me?”
laurent steides across the room. to leave? to strike the child? he isn’t sure yet. he grabs a fistful of dust-laden chiton, and raises effortlessly the boy off the ground. his hair falls away from his face with the motion.
laurent recoils, pulls his hand away, and the noise that bubbles out of his mouth is followed swiftly by his beakfast. he claws at his throat, the laces of his shirt suddenly too restricting.
“your eyes – where are your eyes?”
the child is sobbing. “everyone knew the regent’s pet had blue eyes, and he wanted to kill me, and you didn’t come back, and everyone was going to hurt me, please – please believe me…”
his face is crumpled like paper, his pale lips scabbed and bleeding, and where once were eyes laurent knew as well as his own, two gaping holes, still red rimmed, poorly healed and scarred over ugly and mean meet his gaze.
he can hear screaming in the throne room. it’s not until damen’s arms wrap around him, and he feels a large warm hand settle over his mouth that he realizes it’s him.
nicaise recognizes the voice of the slave who gave him the bread when he is led into the baths so they can clean him. he hasn’t had a bath in months. he luxuriates in the warm water, and begs the slave to bring him rose oil, so he can rub it on his wrists and neck.
the chiton he is given feels soft and luxurious – beautiful fabric, he can imagine its glittering whiteness, and the slave pins is carefully.
“who owns you?” nicaise asks quietly, while the slave combs his hair.
“i belonged to prince kastor,” says the slave. his voice is soft and sweet. “and now i belong to king damianos.”
“he did not have the traitor’s household executed?”
“he is very kind,” the slave says vaguely. “do you want me to cut it?”
nicaise tilts his head to the side. he imagines the slave running the gold tipped blade f the scissors over his throat, and splashing his blood all over the nice marble floor of the bath house, dying his chiton shiny shiny red, and his head rolling off his body and down the steps into the bath, where it will float like a toy.
“please,” he says finally.
laurent clings to nicaise hard enough to bruise, his face buried in nicaise’s shoulder, and his whole body shakes. nicaise allows it.
“you smell like roses,” lauernt murmurs. his breath is warm on nicaise’s skin.
nicaise fists his hands into the loose tresses of laurent’s long hair. it’s soft as he remembers, and he wonders if the akielon sun has made it lighter. he will never know.
“i missed you,” he admits quietly.
“i missed you too,” laurent’s voice is brittle and earnest. “i kept the earring.”
“i was always going to come back,” laurent promises. “but i thought you were dead.”
“i’m ugly now,” nicaise murmurs thoughtfully, his voice muffled in the soft fabric of laurent’s night shirt. “you don’t have to keep me, but i wanted to know why you never came back.”
“now you do,” laurent says gently.
“now i do,” nicaise echoes, and then, because he wants to acknowledge it, says “i don’t have eyes.”
“i’ll make you new ones,” laurent promises. “and i’ll keep you.”
“as a pet?”
“as an advisor.”
nicaise stills in his arms, and when he breathes out again, it’s a laugh and sob rolled into one, and he can’t stop his wailing, and laurent doesn’t make him.
in his dreams, the world is still full of color, and laurent rides in on his beautiful horse, and spears the regent through with a golden spear, and sweeps nicaise off the ground with one arm. they ride triumphant on a field of blue forget-me-nots.
he wakes up to darkness, and beside him, laurent breathes.