"There's the summer festival to be planned, of course," Auguste was saying, "but we won't need to worry about that until after we come back from Kempt."
Laurent's head snapped up, and he set down his pen. "We? I'm not going to Kempt."
"You're the crown prince," Auguste reminded him, as though it was possible for him to forget. "You'll be expected to make an appearance, even if you aren't directly involved in the peace talks."
The Kemptian Summit was held every five years, to adapt and reaffirm the terms of the treaty that had kept peace across the continent for most of a century. Some years, it was a strained and serious affair, but in recent times it seemed to have become little more than a formality, a vague excuse to gather and indulge in the excesses of royal life.
In other words, it held absolutely no interest for Laurent. "It's unnecessary," he argued. "And I had thought--" He cut himself off, feeling suddenly childish for his assumptions.
He looked down at the sheaf of papers where he had been taking notes, striving for a casual tone. "I had hoped you would allow me to manage affairs here in the capital, while you were gone."
Auguste waved a hand. "You would be wasted here. Our uncle can surely keep the nobles from stabbing each other in the back for a week or two--but you are the only one I would trust to keep an eye on the scheming royal houses while the heads of state are meeting."
"You expect trouble, then?" Laurent asked, the slight forgotten.
"Not immediately, no. But our sources say that tensions are rising between Patras and Vask, and both the Patran king and the headwoman of the Vaskian tribes will be at the talks. If there are problems to come, I'd rather they not catch us unaware."
"And anyway, you'll need to know how these things are done, in case I fall down a staircase one day and the crown passes to you."
Laurent frowned. "That isn't particularly funny, considering what happened the last time. Or had you forgotten?"
At the last summit, five years before, the assembled nobles had arranged a horseback race around the palace grounds. It had all seemed to be in good fun, until Damianos of Akielos had come around too quickly and spooked Auguste's horse. She reared, throwing him, and even from his place on the parapet Laurent had heard the sound of his brother's ankle breaking.
"I suspect I remember it better than you do," Auguste said dryly. "But there's no need to worry. I've heard that King Theomedes is bringing his other son this year, and he's not much of a rider. Besides, I'll need you around to keep an eye on Nicaise."
Laurent hid a wince. He could well imagine how the crown's teenage ward would fare, set loose among half a dozen royal families and their associated staff.
He'd probably start a war.
"I'm not a nursemaid," Laurent warned, knowing full well that the game had been lost before he ever stepped into the room.
"Certainly not. You barely qualify as a chaperone. But the experience will be good for you both." Apparently considering the matter closed, Auguste stood up and came around the desk. It must have been a good day; his limp was barely noticeable, and he left the carved wooden cane where it leaned against the edge of his desk.
He dropped a companionable arm around his brother's shoulders and guided him towards the door. "Go on, then. Charls is waiting outside to take your measurements."
"Measurements? What for?"
Auguste smiled broadly. "The masquerade ball."
He closed the door, cutting off Laurent's protest before it could begin.
And now here they were at the Kemptian palace. Being located farther north than Arles, the palace fireplaces were kept ready against the evening chill, even in high summer. But the late afternoon sunlight shone warm and golden through the windows, and nightfall seemed a long way off. Throughout the palace, servants were bustling around, preparing for the celebration to come.
The summit always began with a masquerade. In the past, Laurent had been able to escape attending, claiming his youth, but at twenty he could make no reasonable objection. (Nicaise, who enjoyed finery almost as much as court intrigue, had not deigned to employ Laurent's excuse.)
The masquerade costume had been aired out and pressed. Laurent eyed it skeptically. It was certainly...green. Of course wearing royal Veretian blue would not make for much of a disguise at all, but Laurent had not been expecting something quite so eye-catching as the poison-green, scaled outfit and the jeweled serpent's mask that accompanied it. It would be impossible for him to evade attention in a costume like this.
He dressed anyway, feeling unaccountably as though he were arming himself for battle. Almost immediately, a knock sounded on the door.
Nicaise appeared in the doorway, dressed as a rather fanciful shepherd. "We are going to be late," he announced, as though tardiness might be punished with execution.
The stakes were not so high as that, of course, but Auguste would know the fault was Laurent's, and he hated disappointing his brother more than the prospect of the long, dull evening ahead of him.
"Lead on, then," he said. "And remember--only one glass of wine, and if anyone makes you uncomfortable--"
"Kick them in the shins and yell 'fire,'" Nicaise finished.
"That'll do." Laurent squared his shoulders and followed Nicaise out of their suite.
"His Highness is waiting for you downstairs," said the guard at their door--he was Veretian by his voice, but not of the higher classes, and Laurent didn't remember his name.
"Thank you," he said, and he trailed in Nicaise's wake as they made their way downstairs.
Auguste was waiting for them by the great carved doors of the ballroom, recognizable only because he'd not put on his mask yet. Charls was to be commended--he had designed a costume of a barbarian warrior for him, complete with a snarling bear mask and a false halberd that disguised his walking stick perfectly.
"Are you ready to go in?" he asked.
Laurent hoped that his expression was visible behind his mask.
"Well, we're going anyway. Cheer up, it won't be that bad." Auguste settled his mask in place, hiding much of his expression, and gestured for Laurent and Nicaise to precede him into the ballroom.
Nicaise practically skipped into the great hall and was immediately surrounded by Kemptian dowagers, all cooing over his costume and insisting that he try various cakes and confections.
Laurent watched him for a moment, suddenly certain that his fate would be only slightly different, should he make his presence known.
Auguste nudged him. "Go and dance," he said.
"I am here, is that not enough?"
"We are expected to participate. And since I cannot, you'll need to take up the mantle for Vere."
"For Vere?" Laurent countered. "I thought no one was meant to know who we are."
"No, but there are always rumors. Gossip abounds in a place like this. You just have to hope that they guess correctly, so you don't have to spend the next ten years convincing everyone that you weren't the one throwing up in the rose bushes."
"But you were the one throwing up in the rose bushes." Laurent hadn't quite been eleven that year, but he remembered it vividly.
"Quiet, you," Auguste said, his wry smile visible beneath his mask. "Besides, if you stand in a corner glowering all night, everyone will know for a certainty who you are."
"Go on. You never know, you might actually enjoy yourself."
Doubting it very much, Laurent took a deep breath and ventured into the fray.
"Is that really what you're going to wear?"
Damen glanced over his shoulder to where Kastor stood in the doorway, dressed as a gladiator. "Yes."
"It has lace."
"It's a costume," Damen said patiently. He reached up to fasten his mask and winced as the movement tugged the fresh stitches in his arm.
"Here, let me." Kastor came around behind him and began knotting the silk ribbons into place. "Is your arm bothering you?" he asked. "I can send for the physician if--"
He shook his head. "He's already been in this evening, and he says it will heal clean. But the Queen of Kempt should be informed that the mountain bandits are growing bolder."
"I'm certain Father will bring it up as soon as the talks begin tomorrow." He stepped back and eyed Damen's reflection in the mirror. "You look like a Veretian whore."
Damen shrugged. "Just as long as I don't look like an Akielon prince."
He wasn't even supposed to be here--he was supposed to be patrolling the Patran border right now with Makedon's company. But his father had called him back, citing the growing tensions with Patras, and now Nikandros was serving with Makedon while Damen was halfway across the continent in Kempt.
He was not upset with the decision, though he wondered at his father's reasoning. Even if he had been displeased, it was not his place to question an order.
"Are you ready now?" Kastor asked impatiently. His costume was somewhat less imaginative--a masked and helmed gladiator. It would not be difficult to guess he was from Akielos, though at least they would not know which Akielon he was.
They went down to the ballroom together, and Damen turned to his brother when the doors opened, preparing to part ways for the evening.
Kastor clapped him briskly on the back. "Well, good luck finding a partner for the evening, looking like that."
"You underestimate my charm," he said, half-smiling.
"Yes, I'm told that being the heir to half a continent is extremely charming," Kastor replied. "I wager you'll struggle more without your pretty face and vast inheritance at your back."
"I'll take that wager," Damen said instantly. "Pick anyone you like."
Kastor scanned the crowd, considering. "Over there," he said. "The one by the fireplace."
Damen followed Kastor's gaze to where a man stood, dressed in the silvery-green scales of a serpent. His coloring was pale, which was rather common in Kempt, so he might have been anyone. From here, Damen could make out little of the man's features--but then, that was the point of a masked ball, wasn't it? "All right," he said. "The stakes?"
"Fifty gold if you can bed him."
Damen shook his head. "I never said anything about bedding anyone. Father wouldn't approve of--"
"A kiss, then," Kastor amended. "And if you can't…"
"Don't trouble yourself trying to invent a forfeit. It won't be necessary."
"Fifty gold if you can't, then," Kastor decided.
Damen held out a hand. Kastor shook it firmly, and then he vanished into the crowd.
Despite Auguste's insistence that he participate, Laurent had survived the first hour of the masquerade ball without being forced to do more than make polite conversation with anyone.
But he feared that the situation would change soon. He'd become aware of a few knots of people, mostly women, whispering and casting would-be discreet glances in his direction. Thus far no one had been bold enough to approach him, preferring to hover nearby in the hope that Laurent would take the hint and invite them to dance. But eventually one of them would step forward, or Auguste would catch his eye and frown, and he would be forced to do his duty.
A quiet step sounded behind him, and Laurent steeled himself.
"You seem to have gathered a crowd of admirers," a voice said.
Laurent looked up--and up--into the dark eyes of a man in a black domino mask. He was dressed in wine-red velvet, like a particularly successful highwayman. The angle of his jaw was a golden brown color that might ordinarily have suggested that the man hailed from the southern part of the continent, but royal intermarriages were so common that such coloring meant almost nothing.
Laurent inclined his head in greeting, then glanced past him to the admirers that the highwayman had mentioned.
"So I've noticed," he said grimly. "I expect I'll have to dance with one of them eventually, if only to satisfy convention."
The highwayman shook his head. "No, no. You don't want to do that. Dancing with one of them will only indicate your availability to all the others, and then you won't have a moment's peace."
That was undeniably the case, but Laurent's continued refusal to dance would only disappoint Auguste. "You have an alternate suggestion, then?"
The highwayman grinned, bright and warm. "Dance with me, instead."
Laurent certainly hadn't expected that. He considered the prospect. "That would cause a bit of a stir," he said. "It isn't exactly traditional, is it?"
He shrugged. "What is 'traditional'? Marrying for politics and progeny, and ferrying lovers of all sexes up the servants' staircase? Masked or not, this is a great deal more honest."
There was some logic to the highwayman's words. Laurent's interest did not run towards women, when it ran toward anyone at all. Dancing with one of his female admirers would only be an invitation to misunderstandings and wounded pride.
And dancing with the highwayman would obey the letter of Auguste's edict rather than the spirit, which was a game that Laurent always enjoyed.
"Very well," he said at last. "I'll dance with you."
The highwayman held out his hand, and Laurent took it. He let himself be led into the crowd of dancers, smugly aware of the whispers that followed them.
The highwayman changed his grip on Laurent's hand, stepped close, and slid his free hand around Laurent's waist. His hand was warm, and Laurent nearly pulled away altogether, shocked by the intimacy of the gesture.
But this was what he wanted, wasn't it? To cause a stir, to ruffle a few royal feathers. Turning away now would be a coward's move, and an insult to the man who had offered him a dance.
The highwayman stepped forward. Laurent's first step back was an act of self-preservation, to keep some whisper of space between their bodies. And then abruptly they were dancing.
It was surprisingly easy to let himself be led by his partner, but Laurent wasn't known for letting things be easy. "I don't remember saying that you could lead."
"Traditionally, the one who requested the dance leads."
"But traditionally, dances are between male and female. The roles of leader and follower are determined by sex, not initiative. If a woman were to ask me to dance, I would still be expected to lead."
"Perhaps. But you clearly know how to follow," the highwayman said.
A proper gentleman would take the opportunity to compliment his partner's skill at leading. Laurent had no intention of being proper tonight. "I like subverting expectations."
"Which is why you agreed to dance with me, I suppose."
"Indeed," Laurent replied. "But you might have asked me, instead of presuming."
"Well, if you want to lead, then lead," he said, without pausing in the dance.
Laurent pretended to ignore the teasing challenge, content to bide his time. But when the music changed, slowing and softening, he feigned a stumble. He felt the highwayman's grip on his waist tighten as though to catch him, but Laurent used the momentum to pivot in place--and then he was leading the dance.
The highwayman's eyes widened behind his mask, and then crinkled as he let out a startled laugh. "Well-played," he said. "But you'll find I'm not as skilled a follower as you."
"That's quite all right," Laurent said. "I'm a very good lead." His reluctance to dance was not born of inexperience. It was expected of a prince to learn these things, even if he preferred almost any other pursuit, and Laurent was determined to master every subject put before him. So he was more than capable of taking a turn around the ballroom.
But he'd never had a partner quite like this. This was a dance like a fencing match, scoring points against each other with words as well as steps. True enough, the highwayman was better at leading than following, so after a while Laurent let him take back the role he preferred. He'd made his point, after all.
After a song or two, he expected the highwayman to take his leave. But at each change of music, he stayed, and Laurent was no longer looking forward to the moment when his partner finally decided that his duty had been discharged.
Either one of them might have drawn back at any time, but Laurent was unexpectedly content to continue. He couldn't help thinking of the way his partner's hand had tightened on Laurent's waist when he pretended to stumble. The instinctive move to support him had been...unexpected. Laurent wasn't certain how he felt about that.
The noise in the ballroom had grown with the crowd, and the bodies in motion combined with the burning lamps and candles made the vast ballroom feel close and hot.
"It's warm in here," Laurent said. He instantly regretted his words as the highwayman slowed to a stop, and his hand fell from Laurent's waist.
But his other hand, curled around Laurent's own, did not waver. "Why don't we go and get some air, then?" he asked.
It was a perfect moment for Laurent to excuse himself, to retreat to the punch bowl and the tittering crowd (who might, at least, have given up their designs of snaring him for a dance). But he didn't. He hadn't intended this when he spoke; he'd only been making conversation.
He nodded, and the highwayman turned to lead him through the ballroom, towards the courtyard garden that Laurent had passed by on his way to the masquerade. They were only steps from the door when Laurent pulled his hand away.
The highwayman turned back, lips parting in dismay, but Laurent only plucked two wine-glasses from a servant's tray before following him out into the gardens.
They weren't alone here, either. Several other couples had taken their chance to escape the noise and heat of the ballroom by stepping out into the cool evening. The gardens were jewel-bright beneath the full moon. Despite the early season, night-blooming flowers filled the air with perfume, and somewhere in the distance a fountain splashed pleasantly.
They came to a stone bench beneath a bower of jasmine and wisteria, and they sat down together.
The highwayman took the glass that Laurent offered him, with rather more contact between their hands than was strictly necessary.
"Are you enjoying yourself in Kempt?" the highwayman asked.
"It has its pleasures, I suppose," Laurent replied. This was as much like fencing as the dance had been, but now there was no crowd to offer distraction or enforce discretion.
The corner of the highwayman's mouth lifted. "You suppose?"
"I'm told the hunting is quite nice here."
"The hunting," he echoed. "Yes, there is a certain thrill to the chase, isn't there?"
At a loss for how to respond, Laurent drained his glass. The highwayman did the same, so Laurent plucked the glass from his hand and set them both on the bench behind him. It was a tactical error, he realized suddenly. Without something to occupy his hands, he feared that he might do something rash.
The highwayman turned towards him, tipping his head slightly to one side as though to look a little closer at him. He lifted one hand, fingers curled, and brushed a knuckle against the jeweled edge of Laurent's mask. "So tell me," he said softly. "Are you a venomous serpent?"
Laurent drew in a deep breath, heady with the scent of jasmine. Suddenly bold, he leaned ever so slightly into the highwayman's touch. "Why don't you find out?"
His lips curved into a smile, and he bent to kiss Laurent.
It was not, contrary to common rumor, the first time Laurent had been kissed. But he had not been kissed like this before, with determination and passion that roused the same fire in Laurent himself. He found himself turning, reaching out to bury his hands in the thick curls of the highwayman's dark hair.
They remained like that for instants or eons. The highwayman's hands never wandered below Laurent's shoulders; he made no demands. It was as though he were content to kiss Laurent until the night ended.
Distantly, Laurent recognized that this was not quite proper behavior. There were others in the garden, though the bower they had chosen was rather secluded. They were unlikely to be discovered--and if they were, did it matter? No one would know them, and so no one could censure them. Indeed, they would not even know each other in the morning, a thought that gave Laurent a sudden pang.
Perhaps he could ask--not for a name, that wasn't allowed, but for a token of some kind. Something that they might use to know each other, should they meet again. It seemed a shame to discover such intimacy and lose it all in a night.
"Oh," a voice said, close and young and very familiar. Laurent pulled back reluctantly and turned to face Nicaise.
"Yes?" he asked. His voice came out sharp, embarrassed and impatient in equal measure. His hair was surely a mess, and if his face was as flushed as it felt , Nicaise would never let him forget it.
"I didn't mean to interrupt," Nicaise said, glancing between Laurent and the highwayman. "Your brother was looking for you, but I'll tell him you're...busy."
"Do that," Laurent said dryly. Auguste would tease him in the morning, but morning was a long time away.
He had already turned back to the highwayman when Nicaise spoke again. "Mind he doesn't break your ankle, too," he said, and then he was gone.
Nicaise's words were so much nonsense at first, not half as important as the thought of kissing his highwayman again.
Indeed, he had already turned back to continue when his words finally registered. Mind he doesn't break your ankle, too.
Laurent looked up at the highwayman with rising dread. Past caring about rules and traditions, he reached up and tugged at the black silk mask. The knot came undone with hardly a hint of resistance, and then the mask fell away to reveal the face of Damianos of Akielos.
Impossible. Damianos was meant to be patrolling the Akielon border with Patras, hundreds of leagues away. Yet it was unmistakably him.
Horror unspooled like a dark ribbon in Laurent's chest. The mask dropped from his hand as he rose to his feet and took a step back.
Damianos stood and stepped forward, like this was just another dance. "Wait, please."
His hand rose without conscious thought, striking Damianos' cheek with a sharp crack that seemed to echo through the garden.
Laurent turned and walked away.
Damen stared after Laurent as he disappeared into the ballroom. His cheek was hot and stinging, and he felt as though he were rooted to the spot.
Eventually, the rising tide of whispers was enough to rouse him. He bent to retrieve his mask and turned his back on the ballroom path, seeking a different way out of the garden.
He got turned around twice on the winding garden paths and surprised one couple having an even more intimate evening than his own, but eventually he found his way into the palace through an unlocked side door. His entry startled a servant in the corridor, but he did not stop until he reached his rooms, deep in the east wing of the palace.
The guard at the door blinked when he saw him. Some fraction of Damen's turmoil must have shown on his face, because Pallas' brows drew together in a frown. "Exalted?" he asked.
Damen sighed. "I think I've made a terrible mistake."
"I'm sure that's not so, Exalted," Pallas said loyally.
"Come in, then. When you've heard what happened, you'll agree with me."
Somewhat uneasily, Pallas followed Damen into his chambers, making certain to lock the door securely behind him. It was a breach of etiquette to leave his post, yes, but what danger was there to be fought off in a palace corridor?
Damen plucked a bottle of wine from its place on a table and poured a glass for himself, and then one for Pallas.
Pallas was a frequent member of Damen's patrols, and though he was not so close a confidante as Nikandros, he had proven himself both honest and trustworthy over the last few years. Damen had already privately marked him out for a seat on his small council when he took the throne one day.
Damen handed a wine-glass to Pallas, who took it with a nod of thanks and then immediately set it aside. Despite his mood, Damen almost smiled--the dedication to his duty was admirable, even if it was unneeded.
"What is on your mind, Exalted?"
Damen opened his mouth to speak, reconsidered, and drank deeply from his wine-glass instead. "I danced with a young man at the masquerade ball this evening," he said, setting down the glass. "We were having a...very nice time, until he realized who I was, pulled off my mask, and slapped me in front of half the royals in attendance."
"I see, Exalted. Had he taken offense somehow?"
"In a manner of speaking. His elder brother was injured at the last summit, and it seems he may yet blame me for the incident."
Pallas blinked as the pieces fell into place. "You danced with Laurent of Vere?"
Damen nodded; Pallas lifted his own wine-glass and took a drink.
"I'm surprised you escaped with all of your limbs," he said when he had finished.
"If not my dignity," Damen muttered. "Of all the foolish things...I should have known better than to take that bet."
"It was a bet?"
"At first. Kastor hinted that I wouldn't be able to charm a dance partner without the aid of my 'face and inheritance.'"
"And you let him goad you."
There was the frankness Damen had needed. "Yes. It was foolish and I know it, you don't need to say it."
"I would not dare say such a thing, Exalted." Pallas' mouth pressed into a firm line, as though trying to hide a smile.
"No. It is true, and you should never be afraid to speak the truth to me."
Pallas picked up his wine-glass again, eyeing the ruby color of the wine as he turned the glass. "Then, if I may ask, Exalted…"
"Speak plainly. I will not fault you for it."
"Did you know it was him, when you were dancing?"
There was the rub. Damen took a deep breath. "I...wasn't certain, until the end. I shouldn't have let it go as far as I did."
"How far did it go?" Pallas asked warily.
Damen scratched a hand over the back of his neck. "I kissed him. And he kissed me, as well," he continued in a rush. "And then it all went wrong."
"I see." Pallas rose from his seat and pulled a stoppered stone vessel from a chest that had not yet been unpacked. "Wine may serve to ease embarrassment, but it's hardly enough to temper a broken heart."
Damen rolled his eyes. "No one's heart is broken," he complained, but he took the cup of griva that Pallas poured for him.
"Well, broken heart or wounded pride, you may take comfort in knowing that it won't last long."
"No." Pallas smiled crookedly. "If the Veretians don't kill you for this, your father definitely will."
Breakfast was a quiet affair in the Veretian suite. Laurent had left the masquerade immediately after unmasking the highwayman and had retired for the night well before his brother had returned to question him. He'd slept terribly, waking at intervals to curse himself for his foolishness and plot idle revenge against Damianos. Just after dawn, he gave up entirely and dressed for the day.
Auguste was already sitting at the breakfast table when Laurent arrived. He was drinking coffee with cream and reading over the notes for the day's peace talks. Laurent sat down across from him, selected a pastry from the basket on the table, and said nothing. He hoped that Auguste would take his cue from Laurent's silence.
"You know I don't mind that you danced with him," Auguste said mildly, without looking up from his notes.
"I don't want to talk about this," Laurent warned.
"And I wouldn't mind if you intended to court--"
He pushed back his chair with a loud clatter of wood against marble. "I'm going to eat on the terrace," he said, and he left without giving Auguste any opportunity to argue.
The terrace did not improve his mood, but at least he was alone. It was cool enough that Laurent wished he'd worn a heavier jacket, but stalking out of the room in a fit of pique hadn't left him the opportunity to dress for the outdoors.
Still, the clear skies promised a warm afternoon. Perhaps he would go out riding for the day. Surely all the gossip about his...indiscretion with the Prince of Akielos would be wrung out by then.
The hinge on the balcony door squeaked, and Laurent steeled himself for a continuation of the argument. Surely Auguste would be called to the summit soon...
"Can I come out?"
Nicaise. Laurent beckoned him forward, and Nicaise settled in the chair on the other side of Laurent's small table. He tucked his feet underneath him, looking smaller and younger even than he usually did. Laurent kept his eyes on the mountains in the distance, trying to think of anything but the masquerade ball.
A futile attempt. He sighed. "How did you know it was Damianos?"
Nicaise shifted in his chair. "I heard one of the Kemptian ladies talking. Said she'd recognize his backside anywhere. I wasn't going to say anything, because I knew there would be a scene, but then you went out to the gardens, and I thought you might do something you'd regret, if you didn't know who he was."
"And I'm sure that telling me in the most humiliating way possible was just a bonus."
He shrugged. "I found you as quickly as I could. And by then it was too late--I couldn't exactly make you un-kiss him."
That was true enough--the greater part of Laurent's embarrassment was his fault alone. The only question that remained, to his mind, was why Damianos had chosen him for a dance. "Do you think he knew?" he asked idly. "Did he know who I was when he asked me to dance?"
"I don't know," Nicaise said, frowning. "Does it matter?"
"I suppose not." But it did, in some sense. At least if Damianos hadn't known, Laurent could consider it an unfortunate accident on both their parts. But if he had known, and had danced--had flirted--had kissed him anyway, that was another matter entirely.
Of course, the only way to find out would be to ask Damianos himself, and Laurent was determined never to speak to him again.
He finished his breakfast and laid the plate aside. "If my brother asks, tell him I'm going out for a ride." If he timed it properly, he would return just as dinner was beginning, and Auguste would have no chance to pick up the argument again.
Laurent rode for most of the day, and the cool mountain air was enough to clear his mind somewhat. By the time he turned his mount and headed back towards the palace, he was beginning to feel that there was a real chance the matter might blow over entirely by morning.
He left his mount in the care of the hostlers and climbed the long, polished staircase up to their suite. The day's talks would be ending soon, if they hadn't already; he should have just enough time to wash before being called down to supper, and no time at all for awkward conversations with his brother.
He was halfway down the corridor when the door to their suite opened, and Damianos walked out. Laurent's heart stuttered as he saw Auguste holding the door open for him. What could they have had to discuss? And why would Auguste invite him here?
Damianos turned back and said something, too low for Laurent to hear, and Auguste laughed. Betrayal seethed in Laurent like a boiling kettle. He ducked into an alcove and waited until Damianos' footsteps had faded away, and then he crossed the hall.
Auguste was still standing at the door, speaking casually to the guard. Goran, Gerren, Gavin? Something like that, anyway. It didn't matter.
"What was he doing here?" Laurent demanded.
Auguste's lips thinned slightly; it was as near as he ever came to a frown. "I invited him for tea. I wanted to make sure you hadn't done any permanent damage to him."
"You mean like he did to you?"
Auguste sighed. "Will you come inside? We don't need to make a scene in the corridor."
Without waiting for Laurent to answer, he turned and walked back into the room, favoring his left side. Laurent forced himself to unclench his jaw--every hitch in his brother's gait was another reason to hate Damianos.
Auguste sat down carefully. Laurent didn't feel the need to give this conversation the illusion of civility, so he stayed standing.
Auguste poured himself a cup of tea. "This is all about what happened at the last summit, and it stops now. Blaming Damianos for an accident of chance and my own arrogance--"
"He came around on your horse's blind side!"
"And if my mount had been better trained, she would have handled the surprise without shying. I had no business riding that horse in the race and we both know it. Uncle even told me that she wasn't suited to racing when he gave her to me, but I was too proud and I didn't listen."
"Why did you do it, then?"
"I suppose it was that...well, Father had just died, and I wanted the other royals to respect me. I thought having the fastest horse would help, somehow."
"They do respect you."
"In spite of that day, not because of it," Auguste countered. "Humility was a lesson I needed to learn, and I was fortunate to learn it at such a small cost."
"If I had brought such arrogance to a battlefield, it might have cost a thousand lives. So yes, I count the lesson cheaply learned."
Auguste looked tired, and suddenly Laurent was seared with guilt for contributing to his exhaustion. He sat down on the sofa across from his brother and poured himself a cup of tea. "I'm sorry I put you in such an awkward position," Laurent said, cradling his teacup.
"It's all right. I know that your anger is born out of love. But all of this...it's not your grudge to carry. It's mine, and I've chosen to put it down. I'd like it if you could do the same. For Vere."
Laurent bit down on an instinctive protest. He might not agree that Damianos was blameless, but his brother--his king --was asking him to set aside the grievance. "I'll try," he allowed.
"Thank you." Auguste sipped his tea. "There is...one other thing."
"You owe him an apology."
"It needn't be public, but you do need to make peace with him."
"Why should I?"
Auguste set his teacup down; the delicate porcelain rattled on the table. "Do you know the penalty in Akielos, for laying a hand on a member of the royal family? It's summary execution--on the very spot, without trial or recourse. If you were anyone else, you might have paid for the insult with your life. Since you are a prince yourself, you are afforded some measure of allowance, but I do not wish to test that leniency any further. I will not have this incident damage our diplomatic relations with Akielos."
The tension in Auguste's voice had seemed like anger, but his words revealed the truth: he was afraid. Because if Akielos pressed the issue, if they demanded that Laurent pay for the insult with his life…
Auguste would never let them do it--Laurent was certain of that as he was certain of few other things in his life. But it would mean war.
"I will command it if I have to," Auguste said, more softly, "but I hope that you won't make me."
That was only a command phrased more kindly, but Laurent couldn't blame him for it. "All right," he said at last. "I will apologize."
The smile of relief on Auguste's face was almost worth the knowledge of the embarrassment to come. "Thank you." He rose from his seat and rested a hand on Laurent's shoulder as he passed. "The summit will only last another week, if everything goes well--after that, no one will even remember this incident."
Laurent wished he could share his brother's optimism. "I certainly hope so," he muttered darkly.
Damen had sent Pallas to make certain that Laurent was away before he ventured to the Veretian quarters in the afternoon. He hadn't realized how upset Laurent had been over the incident at the last summit, and he wanted to make sure that the sentiment wasn't shared by the King of Vere himself.
It wasn't, which was a relief. He'd shared tea with Auguste, who had not gone so far as to offer an apology for his brother's actions--but, in fairness, Damen had not come to apologize for his own, either. They kept their talk to lighter things, and had parted on friendly enough terms. He had seen Laurent approaching as he left, but had pretended otherwise. He had no desire to spoil a pleasant afternoon with a confrontation.
He'd had some small measure of hope that the matter might not be brought up again, but his hopes were dashed as soon as Kastor walked into their quarters late in the afternoon. Theomedes was engrossed in writing something, and Damen was idly perusing a book of Kemptian military history when Kastor sat beside him on the divan.
"So, how is your face, Damen?" he asked, a picture of solicitous respectability.
"It's fine," Damen muttered. He didn't want to think about the masquerade, or about his face, or about Laurent's face when he'd seen Damen taking his leave of Auguste. All he wanted was for the summit to be over, so that they could go home and forget that this ever happened.
"Are you certain?" Kastor continued, reaching out to pinch at Damen's cheek. "It looks a bit red to me."
Kastor's taunts had all the subtlety of a schoolboy's, and Theomedes looked up sharply. "Have I missed something?"
"Nothing important, Father," Damen said, giving Kastor's shin a solid kick beneath the low table.
But their father was no fool. "I'm sure it has nothing to do with the rumors about you and the Veretian prince at the masquerade."
"There was a misunderstanding," Damen said, "that's all."
"Indeed? Do tell."
It was Kastor's idea! he wanted to shout, but he knew better than to try to lay the blame on another's shoulders. It wasn't kingly, his father would say, and Damen would end up compounding one shame with another.
Besides, Kastor hadn't forced him to take the bet. His own pride was at least as much to blame as Kastor. Damen took a breath. "It was a case of mistaken identity," he continued, in more measured tones. "We were dancing, and when he discovered who I was, he realized that he had reason to quarrel with me. He reacted in the heat of the moment, and I don't blame him for it."
Theomedes said nothing further, but Damen knew his father well enough to know that it would not be the end of the discussion.
A few moments later, Theomedes spoke again. "Whatever 'misunderstandin' took place with the Veretian boy, I expect you to correct it immediately."
"Yes, Father," Damen said, looking down. He set his book aside and rose from his seat. He knew a dismissal when he heard one.
He left the parlor for his bedchamber, where a small but handsome desk was set against one wall, complete with pens, inkwells, and a sheaf of paper.
Damen had never particularly enjoyed correspondence, least of all when it involved confessing his own fault, but he had always been able to set himself to the task when necessary. It seemed that such was not the case this afternoon. He found himself staring at the blank page as the moments passed by, and the lamp on the desk began to gutter and fade.
The door opened, and Kastor appeared. He crossed the room and dropped a heavy pouch on the desk in front of Damen. "Your winnings."
"No, no, you won fair and square. And truly, I consider the coin well-spent."
"You knew it was him," Damen said, giving voice to a suspicion that had been growing ever since the night before.
"Not at all--but I must say it was a happy accident." He perched on the edge of the desk, causing the inkwell to wobble dangerously before Damen steadied it.
"What is it that you want?" Damen asked, on the verge of a sigh.
"I just want to be certain that you've considered your options."
"What options ?"
"Father wants you to apologize, but you don't have to. You could demand satisfaction instead."
"Duel him? Over a slap?"
He shrugged. "He insulted you, and in public. Plenty of duels have been fought for less cause."
"No. I don't want to hurt him."
Kastor's eyes narrowed. "Don't tell me you fell for that weedy little--"
"He's not weedy." Damen knew even as he spoke that it was the wrong line of argument to take, so he hurried to continue before Kastor could remark on it. "It has nothing to do with 'falling for him.' The damage that a duel would do to the negotiations, even if neither of us was seriously hurt--"
"All right, all right. It's your dignity." Kastor hopped off the edge of the desk, and this time Damen wasn't quick enough to keep the inkwell from overturning. "Good luck, little brother."
Damen watched the door close behind Kastor. He sighed and mopped up the worst of the spilled ink, then drew a spare piece of paper out of the desk.
To Laurent, Prince of Vere, he began.
Damen remembered the feel of Laurent's waist beneath his hand, the smirk on his face when he tripped Damen into following instead of leading. He was slim, yes, but strong for all of that. Steel beneath silken scales.
He turned his attention back to the page in front of him. A written apology would not suffice--his father considered such distant diplomacy only a step above cowardice. He would have to convince Laurent to meet with him in order to give his apology in person, and that seemed likely to be a task of monumental difficulty.
He took a deep breath, picked up his pen, and composed a message. It was brief, as was his wont, but somewhat more formal than usual, which was probably what Veretians preferred, anyway.
Before he could allow doubts and recriminations to creep in, he sent the letter off with one of the palace servants. He fought the urge to pace the room while he waited for a reply. It might not come until after dinner--or even later, tomorrow or the day after, if Laurent wanted to keep him waiting. Damen wouldn't put it past him.
As it turned out, the reply came less than an hour later, and was extremely terse.
Meet me in the garden after supper, read the unsealed letter, in a gracefully slanting hand. I trust you will remember where.
Dinner passed without incident, possibly because the Veretian and Akielon tables were placed at opposite ends of the great hall. Damen wondered if that had been done on purpose, if the rumors had spread so far so quickly.
All too soon, to Damen's mind, the servants stepped out of the shadows to collect the dishes, and the meal was over. He looked around the room, but he didn't see Laurent anywhere. He rose, excused himself, and made his way to the gardens.
The door into the courtyard wasn't the same as the one they'd used at the masquerade, so it took him some time to find the same trellis and the stone bench where they'd dallied the night before. The sunset light was beginning to fade, but the gardens still clung to the last of the day's warmth.
Laurent was already there, looking bored and unruffled in royal Veretian blue. It was the first time that Damen had seen him unmasked, and he was struck half-breathless by the sight of him.
This was not a good start to the evening. Damen drew in a deep breath. "Hello," he said.
Laurent looked up at him impassively. "According to my brother, I owe you an apology," he said, without preamble.
"According to my father, I owe you one as well," Damen admitted.
He nodded. "Good. In that case, we can consider the matter closed and continue to ignore one another for the rest of the summit."
"That's easier said than done," Damen said without thinking.
"I beg your pardon?"
"You're not easy to ignore."
"I am confident that you will be up to the task." Laurent stepped past him, apparently considering the matter closed.
As he passed, Damen caught movement out of the corner of his eye, something dark hurtling through the air towards them.
"Look out!" Laurent shouted, but Damen was already diving to the ground as something heavy sailed through the air between them and thudded to the ground in the garden, burying itself in the rich loam.
Damen pushed himself upright, ignoring a new twinge from his arm. "Are you all right?"
Laurent was already rising from the ground, brushing a few blades of grass from his clothing. "Yes. Are you?"
Damen climbed to his feet. "I am." He knelt down to inspect the item that had flown between them. Round and flat, made of wood and brass with a distinct metal rim… "It's a discus, from the gymnasium."
"I am aware of what a discus is, thank you."
Damen frowned. He had not visited the palace's practice ground, but it would be the height of folly to place a throwing field so close to the palace gardens. He took the discus by its edge and wrenched it out of the earth. "Perhaps we should pay a visit to the gymnasium. Someone will be wanting this back, I wager."
Laurent fell into step with him without argument, but Damen supposed this was only a temporary truce born of necessity--soon enough, they would be back at odds. He considered a number of topics of conversation only to discard them immediately. Silence seemed safest.
Damen pushed open the door that led out to the baths and the gymnasium, and they stepped into the humid warmth together.
The baths were silent and utterly empty, devoid even of the customary attendants. They passed through the chamber and out into the practice field, but Damen already knew what they would find.
The practice field was as empty as the baths had been. "Perhaps the person who threw the discus realized their error, and fled before their actions could be discovered."
"I suppose it's possible," Laurent said thoughtfully. He did not seem to be entirely focused on the conversation.
Damen settled the discus back on the rack with its brethren and wiped the dirt from his hands. "Are we at peace, then?" he asked.
Laurent blinked and looked up at him. "You may tell your father that you discharged your duty to me and that I bear Akielos no ill will."
Damen did not believe that for a moment, but he was willing to take Laurent at his word, if it would put this awkwardness at an end. "Good evening, then."
Laurent nodded. "Yes. Good evening."
When Damen reached the edge of the practice field, he looked back. Laurent was still standing where he had left him, lost in thought.
Laurent slept poorly again. He might have attributed his difficulty to the change in altitude--after all, the mountain air of Kempt was thinner and colder than he was used to--but that was a lie, and Laurent was not accustomed to lying to himself. He had not expected much to come from his meeting with Damianos, but he had hardly expected it to leave him more unsettled.
There was no use in lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling. Laurent rose and pulled a silken dressing gown over his nightclothes as a concession to the cold night. He stepped into a pair of shoes and slipped out into the corridor. Jord straightened to attention when he saw him, but Laurent waved him aside and started down the corridor alone.
He scarcely knew where he intended to go, but he was hardly surprised when his footsteps brought him to the garden door.
He stepped outside, stiffening to hide a shiver as the cool air rushed around him. Walking warmed him, though, and it seemed like only a moment before he arrived at the spot of his conversation with Damianos from the evening before.
The furrowed patch of earth had already been tamped down, but the scar was still visible if one knew where to look. Rather like this whole summit, in a way. There were old tensions all around them, buried only shallowly. They were covered over with fresh sod, but still more than ready to trip an unwary guest…
Laurent looked up sharply to find Damianos standing beside the bench, with a woolen blanket wrapped around his shoulders. Had he been there from the start? He shook his head in response. "Nor could you, it appears."
"I thought the fresh air might help." Damianos sat on the stone bench. The blanket shifted as he moved, revealing a white bandage around his upper arm.
"That looks new--were you hurt this evening?" Laurent demanded.
"No, not truly. I was grazed in a skirmish with bandits on our way to the summit, and I tore a stitch or two trying to avoid our errant discus. You would think I'd run myself through, for the lecture our physician gave me."
"I'm familiar with the type," Laurent said, thinking of Paschal.
"You were deep in thought when I arrived--I'm sorry to have interrupted you. What were you thinking?"
A moment ago, Laurent could hardly have answered the question, but as he looked down at the broken earth, his thoughts finally arranged themselves. "How far could you throw a discus?" he asked.
"Personally? Or in general?"
"Either will do."
"Eighty or ninety paces, perhaps. Why do you ask?"
"I am trying to understand how someone could stand in the practice yard and accidentally throw a discus twice that distance in the wrong direction."
"And then vanish into the aether before they could be discovered," Damianos added.
Laurent's heart beat a little faster, to know that he was not alone in his suspicions. "If it is unreasonable for a man to throw a discus two hundred paces, then the person who threw it must have been much nearer to the gardens--perhaps in the open-air baths, or up in a tower."
"What reason would anyone have to be throwing a discus there?"
"What reason, indeed." He regarded Damianos intently. "You don't think it was an accident."
"I don't think so, no. Do you?"
Laurent's lips curved into a half-smile without his permission. "Why do you think I could not sleep?" His shoes were not made to be worn outdoors; the dew was already soaking into them. He covered the last few paces to the stone bench and sat beside Damianos, careful to keep a few inches of space between them. He tried very hard not to think about the last time they had sat on this bench together.
Damianos let out a slow breath and shook his head. "This could have been a disaster. Who might have known we were meeting? Only my father and my brother knew I was to apologize to you."
"Likewise, my brother and I were alone when we discussed the need for an apology. But your letter was unsealed, as was my response--a fact that seems now like carelessness. Any servant might have opened our letters and learned what was happening."
"And they had the length of our dinner for word to spread, and preparations to be made. The question that remains is which one of us was the target."
Laurent considered. "I do not know that it matters," he said at length. "It depends, of course, on the attacker's intent. If they meant to weaken a particular nation, then yes, it would matter which of us they meant to harm. But if one's goal was to sow chaos, to disrupt the summit and prevent the signing of the accords, then any death or disastrous injury would do. Either of our deaths would alter our nation's like of succession--mine more than yours, but it would still mean upheaval. The survivors would withdraw in mourning, but not before demanding that the culprit be found to face justice. And as we were alone together when the attack occurred--with known enmity towards each other--suspicion would fall neatly on the survivor. It's not unreasonable to suppose that war would be the result."
Damianos sighed out a curse, his breath fogging lightly in the cool air. "I had thought that these summits were tedious pageantry, but now they seem fragile indeed."
Laurent felt himself beginning to sympathize with Damianos, and he hurried to put an end to the emotion before it could take root. He rose abruptly from the bench. "Come, then. It's late, and you Akielons are not used to the cold. We can discuss the matter further tomorrow--I'll inform my brother of our suspicions immediately."
Damianos nodded. "And I will tell my father, and see what action he suggests. I'll send word to you--and this time, I will seal the letter."
"As will I. Good night, Damianos."
There was a fractional pause before he replied. "Good night."
The next morning, Laurent laid his suspicions in front of his brother. In the light of day, sitting at the breakfast table with cups of coffee, it seemed impossible that someone had tried to murder him the previous afternoon. But it had happened--the fresh stitches in Damianos' arm and the torn earth of the gardens were ample evidence for the incident.
"I think it should be considered an act of sabotage, and the guard should be alerted," Laurent concluded.
Auguste blinked. "That would cause an increase in tensions that could threaten this entire summit."
"Yes, rather like the threat of the royal delegates being murdered."
Auguste eyed him seriously, and then he sighed and set down his pen. "I am sorry," he said.
"I have relied on you a great deal these last few years when it comes to managing my court--perhaps more than I ought to have done. The schemes and intrigues of the nobles would turn anyone's head after a time."
Laurent balked. He had been prepared for caution, but not for this. "You do not believe me."
"I believe that there was an accident. An errant throw, perhaps caught on a sudden wind--an unlucky chance, yes, but I cannot imagine that anyone intended it to harm either of you."
Laurent closed his eyes, hating the way he felt suddenly like a child, trying to hold his big brother's attention. "I can think of half a dozen reasons that one country or another might be willing to sabotage the peace talks, and that is without trying. I know that these talks are important, and I wouldn't bring this to you unless I thought it was equally pressing."
"And I would not dismiss your concerns unless I truly believed there was no harm intended."
"Your determination to believe the best of people will end with a knife in your back."
"And your determination to believe the worst will leave you bitter and lonely," Auguste snapped. He closed his eyes for a moment. "I am sorry, that was unworthy of me. It is only that I...worry."
"As do I," Laurent replied. "Apparently more than others do. Excuse me." He rose from his seat and turned to leave.
"Laurent," Auguste called after him.
He turned back. "Yes?"
"Please do not share your concerns with Nicaise. He is young, and there is no need to frighten him."
Laurent nodded, closing his lips firmly around a sigh. He left the Veretian quarters, paused in the hallway for the space of a moment, and then squared his shoulders and walked away.
The guard at the door of the Akielon quarters seemed to be wondering if Laurent meant to pose a threat. "Can I help you?" he asked, in passable Veretian.
"I am looking for Damianos," Laurent said. "We have a matter to discuss."
"From what I heard, you ended that conversation rather decisively at the masquerade."
Laurent raised an eyebrow. "Are these the manners of an Akielon servant?"
"Strange that you find it fit to comment on the manners of others, considering your behavior at the masqu--"
The door of the suite opened suddenly. Damianos appeared in the doorway, his expression resigned. "Peace, Pallas," he said. "Prince Laurent is welcome here."
Pallas looked as though he doubted that very much, but he resumed his position beside the door and said nothing further. Damianos let the door fall open wider, and Laurent brushed past him and into the Akielon quarters.
"My brother does not believe me," he said, as soon as the door had closed behind them.
"Nor does my father," Damianos admitted heavily. "He said that raising the alarm would cause a 'distraction' to the peace talks."
"Auguste all but accused me of paranoia."
Damianos winced in sympathy. "But you are no less convinced that something is amiss."
"Not at all."
"Good. And if they will not take measures to seek out the source of the attack…"
"...then we shall have to do it for them."
"Is there to be a truce between us, then?" Damianos asked.
It was a relief that Damianos was the one to put forth the idea of setting aside their animosities--it meant that Laurent did not have to make that foray himself. "For the sake of the summit and all our lives, I think it would be best if we could."
"All right, then. As you seem to have more experience in dangerous intrigues, I will defer to you as to where we should begin." Damianos dropped down onto one of the divans in the sitting room and gestured for Laurent to sit across from him.
Laurent settled lightly on the edge of an armchair. He took a moment to sort out the tangled threads of the situation in his mind; though he would not have admitted it under the gravest torture, he was grateful that Damianos did not rush him. "I think it might be best if we could speak to the servant who delivered our messages. That is the most likely way that our plans were discovered. Do you remember the servant's name?"
"I...did not think to ask," Damianos said guiltily. "Would you know his face, if you saw it?"
Laurent shook his head. "Something of a stark reminder that we ought to pay more attention to our surroundings. We cannot ask the steward for the name of the servant assigned to us--the fewer people who know what we suspect, the less chance our culprit will become aware of us." He paused. "Come to that, we are alone here, yes?"
"Yes. My father is at the summit, and my brother is hunting with one of the Vaskian women. At least--he said he was hunting," he amended. It was quite possible that Kastor and his Vaskian friend had more amorous pursuits on their minds. "You have been thinking about this all night. You must have suspicions about the source of our troubles."
"Of course. Do you not?"
"I do, but I did ask first."
Laurent wondered if Damianos was stalling for time to invent a list of suspects, but that was an uncharitable thought. "My first thought was Kempt itself. They have not entirely forgiven Vere--and me, in particular--for my mother's death." Queen Hennike had not died in childbed, but she had never fully recovered from Laurent's birth. When a fever had begun to spread through the kingdom a few years later…
"That was nearly twenty years ago. Why would they wait until now?"
Laurent shrugged. "Factions rise and fall. Some of my mother's cousins are gaining prominence just now--perhaps enough to hire an assassin."
"But to go so far as to kill you, for something you could not have controlled? That scarcely makes sense."
"We are not arguing the justice of such a grudge, only its possibility," Laurent reminded him. "But you had suspicions of your own, so do share them."
"Patras was my first thought," he offered. "When my father was young, he fought a number of skirmishes along the border there. And though he has never suggested that our armies were the aggressor in any of these encounters, it is always...possible...that the Patrans saw the matter differently. They may yet harbor a grievance against him."
"It would have to be a terrible grievance indeed, to be worth taking revenge on his son."
"You just suggested that Kempt wants you dead for the mere fact of your birth. I hardly see how my suggestion is any more outlandish."
"Not at all. It could also be Vask, though," Laurent continued. "Since you mentioned border skirmishes. Vere and Vask have been at peace for a number of years, but the Vaskian headwoman is newly appointed, and she may have different ideas about the coexistence of our countries going forward."
"We might as well be honest: It could be factions among our people, too," Damianos said. "Some rogue Veretian seeking a grudge, perhaps."
Laurent's mood soured instantly. "And why not an Akielon with more boldness than brains?"
"I will allow that possibility, if you will allow mine."
Laurent pinched the bridge of his nose. "Very well. Then it might be quite literally anyone in the palace. We are no closer to finding our culprit than we were when we began."
"Not at all--now we know where to start."
"I suppose we do. I will look into matters as best I can," Laurent said, "if you will do the same. Perhaps our separate investigations will yield better fruit than these vague suspicions."
"Of course. My father will likely be pleased to find that I am taking an interest in the summit. But how are we to share our information? Employing a servant again seems...unwise."
"And as we are known to dislike each other, we had better not spend too much time together."
"We could meet in the garden," Damianos offered.
Laurent eyed him sharply, wondering if this was a jibe at their first meeting there.
"Oh, do not give me that narrow look," he protested. "Any two people might come across one another in a garden, and exchange rote pleasantries. If those pleasantries also happened to include an exchange of notes about our inquiries, no one would need to know."
Laurent inclined his head and endeavored to relax whatever expression Damianos had called a narrow look. "Then I will take a walk in the gardens tomorrow night after supper," he said.
"I think perhaps I may do the same."
Pallas, for all his curiosity, was entirely circumspect. He did not ask why Damen had let the prince of Vere into their quarters, and Damen was certain he would not inform anyone else of Laurent's visit.
Still, it was not prudent to leave things to chance. Certainly Kastor, if he learned about their meeting, would have had plenty to say about Laurent's presence in their sitting room.
When the opportunity for a moment's private conversation presented itself, Damen broached the subject with the guard.
"Pallas, your discretion where the Prince of Vere is concerned would be...appreciated," he said awkwardly.
Pallas blinked. "Discretion, Exalted? In what matter? I have seen nothing out of the ordinary this afternoon."
Yes, Pallas was definitely going to have a seat on Damen's council when he became king.
When his father returned from the summit, Damen was careful not to seem too eager. He waited through two cups of tea--and Kastor's triumphant and somewhat disheveled return from his hunting trip--before he spoke.
"Have the talks been going well?" he asked, studiously light.
"Well enough," Theomedes said, in a gruff tone that really meant they could certainly be going better. "Patras keeps pressing for those fields in the north of Aegina. Their king has some damned notion that the lands were ancestrally the property of their throne, but he hasn't shown me any document that would back up his claim."
Theomedes looked up at Damen. "If you mean, have they taken formal offense at your masquerade adventure, no. Auguste has a more even temper than his brother, a fact for which we should all be grateful."
"Yes, Father. I am glad to hear it."
That was all that his father seemed interested in saying about the matter, and Damen thought it unwise to push further--at least for today. If he showed too much interest too quickly, his father would start to suspect an ulterior motive.
Damen's note to Laurent that evening was brief and to the point. He did not feel that he had made much progress, but then again, it had only been a day. Perhaps Laurent had fared better.
Patras wants land in Aegina. If an accident were to befall my family, Patras might have an opportunity to advance their troops while the royal family withdraws to Ios.
Father says your brother has a better temper than you do.
The last might have been petty, but it also supported Laurent's claim that Vere would have had nothing to do with the attack. He could have phrased it more kindly, perhaps, but some unacknowledged part of him was still smarting from his embarrassment at the masquerade.
After supper, he excused himself to take a walk in the gardens, just as dusk fell over the palace. He was careful to take a winding route along the paths, so as not to seem like he was waiting for someone.
He must have done a good job; when he came around a bend to find Laurent approaching, his surprise was genuine.
Laurent, for his part, did not seem at all surprised to see him. "Good evening," he said, dipping his head in the merest concession to a bow.
"Prince Laurent." Damen returned the gesture and moved to one side of the garden path. As they passed one another, their hands met, and folded notes were exchanged. Without the least hesitation in his step, Damen continued along the path. He resisted the urge to look over his shoulder. It would draw attention, and besides--he did not know if it would be worse to see that Laurent had not looked back, or to see that he had.
He found a secluded place near the garden wall and unfolded Laurent's note. He had taken the slightly patronizing step of writing in Akielon rather than Veretian, although he knew quite well that Damen understood every language spoken in the five kingdoms. Hadn't they spoken to each other in fluent Kemptian that first evening?
Though he supposed the greater part of their 'communication' that evening had been in a somewhat older and less formal language.
In any case, Akielon words written in Veretian script were a strange sight indeed, and Damen almost wished he'd just written in Veretian.
I have not seen the messenger from before. Strange that he should not be found anywhere, even in passing.
Had tea with Vask. Headwoman is delightful, knows at least a dozen ways to kill any given opponent. Would not stoop to trickery like the discus.
Of course he had left Vere off the list--and truth be told, Damen did not believe that Auguste would do anything to endanger his brother. There may have been other factions at work in the Veretian court, but they were along way from the palace at Arles.
He frowned. The bottom edge of the page was singed, as though it had been passed carelessly over a candle. But there was writing, half-obscured by dark charring. Damen bent his head until his nose nearly touched the paper.
The line had been burned away but not crossed out, which suggested that Laurent had not set aside the suspicion, merely tried to hide it from Damen's notice.
Damen's hand closed into a fist, crumpling the letter, and he turned back. They had agreed to keep their public interactions cordial and circumspect, but Damen's anger was a fierce, hot glow in his chest, and it would not be appeased except by confrontation. He followed what he guessed was Laurent's path through the garden, twisting among the hedges until he came to a door into the palace. He pushed through it without concern, glancing up and down the empty corridor as though it would tell him which way Laurent had gone.
He chose left, reasoning that Laurent might have gone to visit the library rather than returning to his rooms. He was rewarded a moment later when he caught a glimpse of blond hair vanishing around a corner.
Damen closed the distance between them in a few long strides. "We need to talk," he muttered, and he pulled Laurent into a side passage.
Laurent stumbled sideways and regained his feet. He yanked his arm out of Damen's grip, straightening his laced jacket, and drew himself up to deliver what was undoubtedly going to be a withering comment.
Damen beat him to it. "When were you going to tell me?"he demanded, holding up the crumpled note. "Were you ever going to tell me that you suspect my brother in this plot?"
If Laurent was alarmed by Damen's anger, he did not show it. His gaze was shuttered and cool; they might have been discussing the weather. "I hadn't planned to, no. My initial goal was to seek out an alibi for him, to eliminate him from my list of suspects before you ever guessed I had considered him. I should have been more careful with the paper."
"You didn't cross out the line, as you did with Vask. Why?"
"Because I haven't found anything to suggest that he was not involved in the accident."
"This is absurd. You cannot truly think that my brother means to kill you."
"I don't," Laurent said calmly. "I think he means to kill you."
Damen seethed. "Kastor is my brother, he would never--"
"He knew that we were to meet that evening, didn't he? And he stands to gain the most of anyone here, if you should suffer an unfortunate accident."
For a brief, blazing second, Damen wished he had taken Kastor's advice and challenged Laurent to a duel. A sword at his throat would stop Laurent's arrogant tongue for a moment, and--
A whisper of a footstep sounded around the corner. Damen met Laurent's eyes and saw his own alarm reflected there. They were not supposed to be caught--they were not supposed to be here at all, let alone together, and there was nowhere they could avoid being seen. The only features in this passage were the tapestries on the wall and an empty, shallow alcove meant for statuary.
Laurent's glare was baleful, accusatory-- you got us into this. And there was some justice in that accusation, since Damen was the one who had chased him here instead of behaving more prudently and arguing with him in the relative privacy of their chambers.
They couldn't avoid being seen, that was true enough, but perhaps they could avoid being identified. On a sudden inspiration, Damen grasped Laurent's shoulders and gently pressed him back against the wall of the empty alcove.
"Sorry," he said, meaning it. And then he bent forward.
He stopped just short of kissing him, their foreheads pressed together. Damen leaned against the wall with his arms bracketing Laurent's face, blocking him from the view of anyone passing by.
Laurent's breath was warm against Damen's cheek. His body was warm, too, filling the breadth of the narrow alcove and reminding Damen all too well of the masquerade, those fraught and tender moments before it had all gone wrong.
Laurent raised himself up on his toes and twined his arms around Damen's neck. He made a noise of pleasure that was practically a purr.
Damen froze. "What are you doing?" he breathed.
"If they think your attentions are unwanted, they might try to stop you," Laurent replied, his lips a bare inch from Damen's.
"Clever," Damen managed in response.
The footsteps rounded the corner, accompanied by a small gasp, and then the owner of the footsteps rushed through the corridor, leaving Damen and Laurent alone again.
A door closed, and Damen pushed off from the wall and stepped back. He straightened his tunic and tried very hard not to look Laurent in the eye.
"Would you like a moment to compose yourself?" Laurent asked dryly.
"Would you?" Damen countered. "Your face is red."
"Comes of being half-ravished by an Akielon barbarian in an alcove." Laurent's voice was cool, but his breath was still coming fast. Damen felt a rush of desire that was nearly enough to wash away his anger.
There was a beat where neither of them moved; neither of them spoke. They were alone again, and the memories of the masquerade were so near to the surface. Laurent was not as unaffected as he pretended, perhaps there was still a chance that he--
"I want to believe that your brother is not involved," Laurent said, picking up the thread of their previous conversation.
The reminder of their current argument was like a splash of cold water, returning Damen to the present moment. "But," he supplied, hearing the unfinished sentence in Laurent's voice.
"--but I have no proof. If you tell me he is innocent, I will believe you. But it must be based on evidence, not blind faith."
"Fine," Damen said. "I'll find your proof, and we'll be done with it."
Damen didn't bother replying--he just walked away without another word.
Laurent made little progress over the next day. A casual conversation with one of the Patran nobles in attendance did nothing to allay Damianos' suspicions about their push for Akielon lands. So that meant Patras and Kempt were still primary suspects--and, despite Damianos' insistence, Laurent could not rule out an Akielon faction's involvement, either.
Worse still, the spring rains had begun, leaving the gardens miserable and impassable. They would not be able to exchange notes there, and it was not safe to communicate in any other way.
Laurent spent the bulk of the day in the palace library, listening to the rain turn to sleet as it battered the windows. They would be lucky if it did not turn to snow before morning.
He hadn't had much hope that Damianos would think to look for him here, but he looked up from his book just after noon and saw Damianos approaching.
"Could I have a word?" He looked tense and unhappy, and a low spark of worry built in Laurent's stomach.
Stopping to speak to each other wouldn't help hide their investigation, but the worried crease in Damianos' forehead suggested that this conversation couldn't wait.
Laurent laid his book aside. "Of course," he said. They were alone in this part of the library, and there was no one to overhear them. "Please, sit."
Damianos did as Laurent invited him, but he sat on the very edge of the seat, looking ready to dart away at a moment's notice. "I overheard--"
A book fell to the floor with an echoing slam, and they both turned sharply to see Nicaise standing in the doorway. "Oh," he said. "Excuse me." He gathered up his book and fled, and Laurent resigned himself to the permanent ruin of his reputation.
The interruption seemed to have distracted Damianos from his unease. He watched Nicaise's departure with a thoughtful expression on his face. "He's the one who...interrupted us, isn't he? At the masquerade?"
Laurent nodded shortly.
"Who is he? Why is he part of your delegation?"
"His name is Niciase. His mother was in my father's royal guard. She protected him from an assassination attempt, and paid with her life. As she was dying, Father swore that her son would be cared for, so he was made a ward of the crown. He was...six at the time, I believe, and he was raised as though he was our brother. After Father died, Auguste made certain to carry on his promise."
"A kind thing. It must surely have eased his mother's spirit to know that he was cared for."
Laurent shrugged. He wasn't entirely certain that spirits had much interest in mortal affairs, but his father's promise had been the just course. "He's irritating, but clever. I think Auguste means to put him on his council when he comes of age."
"I am sure he'll serve your brother well."
Of course he would, if Laurent didn't contrive to have him exiled for constantly being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There would be no way of explaining to Nicaise that this clandestine meeting was not what it appeared to be--not without revealing his suspicions, and he had promised Auguste not to concern Nicaise. He forced his thoughts back to the moment.
"You were worried about something, when you asked to speak with me."
"Yes." Damianos' expression darkened. "I overheard a pair of servants in the corridor--they were speaking of a third servant, who has not been seen in some days. It might not be our messenger, but it seems too much to be mere coincidence."
"I agree." Laurent sighed. He'd held some tiny hope that perhaps they were making something out of nothing, but the disappearance of a servant seemed to eliminate that option. "I could almost hope that they sent him away for a time, but it isn't likely."
"I doubt it."
"Well, then. We will have to be cautious. If the person behind all of this is killing or banishing people who find out about the plot, however innocently, then our questioning could see someone innocent harmed."
Laurent sighed. "Now, if you will excuse me, I am going to go try to salvage what I can of my reputation."
He left Damianos in the library and made his way back towards the Veretian quarters. Like as not, Nicaise would have returned already. Laurent had no notion of what he was meant to say to him--any explanation would likely seem like over-protesting, and would only lend credence to whatever Nicaise currently believed.
But when he stepped into the parlor, it was not Nicaise but Auguste who met him there.
"There you are," he said, drawing Laurent inside. "I sent out half a dozen servants to look for you. One of them said she had seen you in the library in the eastern wing, but you were gone when they went to find you."
"Why? What is happening?"
"Elenya, the princess of Patras, was injured in the fencing room tonight."
"Injured in what way?"
"Stabbed, according to the physician. And not with a fencing foil. She is expected to live, but her injuries are serious. The Kemptians are requesting that everyone remain in their quarters until the palace can be searched for the attacker."
"I see." Laurent tried rein himself in, without success. "Do you believe me now?" he asked, an edge of unwanted petulance creeping into his voice.
"Yes, and once we have put a stop to this, I will give you a full apology. But, as everyone in this palace is currently in danger, might we save the recriminations for a later time?"
Laurent held up a hand in surrender. He sat down on the divan, but Auguste could not seem to settle. He paced in front of the hearth, his cane thudding on the stone with more than the necessary amount of force.
"Well, we are hemmed in here neatly enough," he said, half to himself. "The Akielon delegation faced bandits on the road--and now I suspect that was not by chance. I'm told that the weather has blocked half the passes through the mountains, too. If the roads were safe, I would send you and Nicaise home ahead of us. Instead, the pair of you will remain here, under the authority of our guards, while the other heads of state and I attempt to salvage some sort of peace from this mess."
"Confined to quarters, then? What help will that be? If we knew who was behind the attacks--"
"Yes, if we knew, then perhaps it would be of use to us. But we do not know, and I will not have you risking yourself any further. You will cease this 'investigation' immediately. I will carry word of your efforts to the captain of the guard, but that is to be the end of it. As your king, I command it."
Laurent stiffened. Auguste had always held that card in reserve, because brotherly affection usually assured Laurent's compliance--and perhaps because he did not wish to test Laurent's contrariness so far. To reject a royal command was to court treason, an awkward escalation of a family spat.
"As you will, Your Majesty." Laurent's voice was sharp in his own ears, and he saw the barb hit home in the tightening of Auguste's expression. He told himself that Auguste had brought this on himself--if he was willing to use the throne against Laurent, he should not be surprised when Laurent returned the favor.
The door burst open, and Nicaise ran in, accompanied by one of the royal guards.
"Thank you, Orlant," Auguste said to the guard. "Please relieve Jord at the door."
Orlant nodded crisply and stepped outside.
"What's going on?" Nicaise demanded. "I was reading in the library, and Orlant told me I had to come with him right away."
Auguste shook his head. "It's nothing to worry about, Nicaise."
"I'm not stupid, and I know you're lying. Something's wrong."
"It isn't important that you know the details."
"Keeping him in the dark won't protect him," Laurent argued. Before Auguste could respond, Laurent turned to Nicaise. "Someone is trying to disrupt the peace talks, possibly by killing one of the delegates or their entourage. We are to remain in our quarters until the matter is settled."
Nicaise's expression settled into a somber neutrality that he probably practiced in the mirror, thinking it made him look grown-up. "I see," he said calmly.
The rest of the day plodded onward. Even the view from the window was obscured by steadily falling snow, and the guards could not be persuaded to fetch more books from the royal library. Supper was brought up to them on a silver tray, but they ate in dismal silence.
Laurent was too aware of the passage of time--no matter how slow it felt, he knew that they were rapidly losing their chance to catch the attacker. The trail was growing colder every moment, and he was trapped in these chambers as surely as in any prison.
Laurent retired soon after night fell, hoping that no new disaster would befall them before morning.
He woke early, already restless, and found himself dressed and pacing the parlor before the sun had fully risen. Auguste rose not long after, and gave him a bracing smile, but the grim happenings in the palace did not encourage idle conversation.
Near mid-morning, a knock sounded at the door. A servant, most likely, with their breakfast. Orlant would let them in as soon as he was certain it was safe.
But when the door swung open, Damianos appeared in the doorway, escorted by one of the Akielon guards. It was almost comical to see someone of Damianos' size guarded by a soldier a head shorter than he was, but the guard's face was set and solemn.
"Damen. How can I help you?" Auguste's voice held a slight edge. Of course he would not suspect Damianos' involvement in the plot to disrupt the summit, but everyone in the palace was uneasy now.
"I...had come to speak with Laurent, if I may."
Auguste glanced Laurent's way, and Laurent nodded. "Come in, then," he said.
Damen sat down, and Laurent politely poured him a cup of tea. Auguste took up a post near the hearth, apparently unwilling to leave Laurent unattended. Very well--matters had far exceeded the scope of their original investigation anyway.
Damen cradled the cup of tea in his hands, but he did not drink from it. "I heard about the...incident, last night. I wanted to ask you about it. The princess was sparring the practice room when she was hurt, wasn't she?"
"Yes. It seems she specifically requested that the practice rooms be opened for her."
Damen's face was grim, his voice heavy. "After the masquerade, and my father's order to apologize, it was...suggested, by certain parties, that I challenge you to a duel for the insult, instead."
"A duel which would have taken place in the practice room," Laurent concluded.
Damen nodded. "It's possible that whatever misfortune befell her there might have happened to one of us, if I had chosen to challenge you instead. Who was she sparring with?"
"One of the noblewomen, the daughter of some dowager countess. But her opponent had already left when the attack occurred. Nicaise could tell you more, perhaps. The older Kemptian ladies have all been doting on him since our arrival, so I'm sure he's quite full of court gossip. Is he still in bed?"
Auguste shrugged. "I assume he is taking advantage of his 'confinement,' as you put it, to sleep in."
Laurent rose from the divan and crossed to Nicaise's room. He rapped at the door lightly, and when there was no answer, louder. Filled with a sudden unease, he turned the knob to find the bedroom empty. The bedclothes were rumpled, as though he must have slept at some point, but Nicaise himself was nowhere to be found. Laurent even went as far as to throw open the closet door and look behind the curtains--he would have been relieved to find that this was all a childish prank. But the only thing to be found behind the curtains was a fine layer of dust on the windowsill.
Laurent stepped back out into the sitting room. "He isn't here."
"Not here ? But that isn't possible, he would have had to pass the guard at the door, and--"
"Look for yourself, if you like, but he's gone. When did you last see him?"
"In the evening," Auguste said. He crossed the room to peer into Nicaise's bedroom, drawing the same conclusion that Laurent had.
"Then he might have been gone twelve hours or more? Did the guard at the door simply let him pass?"
"I will ask the guards. There is no cause for panic, Laurent."
"I am not panicking," he snarled. Panic was an irrational response; this consuming fear was a perfectly reasonable reaction to learning that the youngest and most vulnerable member of their delegation had been kidnapped--or worse.
Somewhere in the palace, a clock struck the hour, and Auguste made a face. "I have to meet with the other heads of state in half an hour--but first I will inform the captain of the guard that Nicaise has gone missing, and they will organize a search. Don't open the door until I return. Damen, keep him here ," he added, with a pointed look at Laurent.
Then he closed the door behind himself.
Laurent almost immediately picked up where his brother had left off, pacing the floor in front of the cold hearth.
"This is my fault. He knew something was happening, when he overheard us yesterday, and then when Auguste forbade me to leave our quarters...he must have thought he would be able to carry on in my place, that he might be more easily overlooked than I would be. If he left, if he was caught or--hurt, then it is my doing."
"It is not your doing," Damen replied.
"I have to find him. If something has happened to him--"
"If something happens to you, your brother will never forgive himself."
It was a low blow, but Laurent had seen it coming. "Well, at least I won't have to live with the guilt." He took a step towards the door, and Damen paced back in equal measure, like a dance.
"Are you going to stop me?"
He could. Hand to hand, Laurent was outmatched, and he knew it. If Damen wanted to, he could keep Laurent here by force.
But Damen would have to be willing to hurt him, and Laurent was wagering everything on the hope that Damen wouldn't go that far.
He sighed. "No. But I won't let you go alone, either."
"Fair enough." Laurent went into his room and found the knife that he kept at hand while they were traveling. Its brown leather sheath did not suit his outfit, but he was far past caring.
Their window of escape was narrow. They had to leave the room and be out of the hall by the time the guards returned from escorting Auguste to the council chambers.
"Are you ready?"
Damen spread his hands. He had brought nothing with him, and so was as ready as he could conceivably be.
They crept out into the hall and, finding it empty, retreated around a corner where they would not be immediately seen by a guard. There, Laurent stopped.
"Where do we go now?" he asked, half to himself. "Where would he have gone, or--been taken…"
Damen was eyeing a tapestry, hung along one section of wall.
He blinked, looking back at Laurent. "I was thinking...at the palace in Ios, there are corridors and staircases built for the servants alone--so that they need not interrupt anyone unnecessarily. If it is the same here in Kempt, the attacker might be making use of those passages, in order to keep out of sight." He crossed the hall and swept aside the tapestry.
There was indeed a door behind it, but the tarnished metal plate on the wall had neither handle nor keyhole. Laurent pushed at it, but it did not budge.
"Well, it cannot be the only one," Damen reasoned. "We will simply have to find another, in a more often-used passage."
Laurent looked up at him. "The corridor where we...spoke, after we met in the garden. The servant who came upon us there went through a door, didn't they? But there was no door in the passage, only--"
"A tapestry on the wall," he finished.
The two of them set off, down the stairs and away from the wing of royal apartments. The corridor was easy enough to find--Laurent would not soon forget that particular alcove--but there was no obvious door.
Laurent swept aside a tapestry decorated with Kemptian victories, revealing a plain wooden door set into the wall. He reached for the knob, but it refused to turn.
"Mm-hm." Laurent plucked a pin from his belt and bent it into a precise shape.
"What are you doing?"
"Would you prefer to break down the door?"
"This is trespassing."
Laurent shrugged, already at work on the lock. "I was commanded by my king to remain in our chambers, so it is already treason. What is a little trespassing on top of that? They cannot execute me twice."
He could afford to be flippant. He knew that Auguste would never allow such a sentence to fall on his own brother. At worst, he might be exiled to some border fortress at Acquitart or Ravenel, forbidden the glitter and drama of court life--and some days, that would seem more reward than punishment.
The door clicked open, and Laurent allowed himself the small smugness of a smile.
"Where did you learn to do that?"
"My brother did not want to force me to rely on the possibility of a rescue. If I were ever kidnapped, I would have the chance to effect my escape alone."
"A useful skill, it seems. I'll have to find someone to teach me."
Damen led the way through the corridors; Laurent considered asking what gave him the right to take the point position, but any argument would only further delay them, so he relented with only a sigh.
Tallow candles set into holders in the wall gave the passage an indistinct, flickering quality that made the whole affair seem like something out of a dream. Damen took one of the candles and used it to light their way, though the hot wax spattered his hand as they went.
Different doors split off of the corridor, labeled with their destination--kitchens, laundry, garden. None of those seemed likely to lead anywhere useful. They descended a short flight of stairs, where the candles seemed to be spaced farther apart; some had even gone out, caught in a draft or burned down to their base. These passages were lesser used, and all the more likely to hold a prisoner...or an ambush.
Damen stopped, so suddenly that Laurent nearly collided with him. "Oh no," he said softly, and Laurent's whole body seemed to turn to ice.
No, not him, not Nicaise, he's a child, he can't be-- "What's wrong?"
"I think I've found our missing servant."
Relief rushed shamefully through Laurent, and he stepped up to stand beside Damen. The servant was sprawled on the ground, still wearing the livery of the Kemptian palace, but the white tunic was stained dark with dried blood. By the smell, he had been there for several days.
"They must have removed him as soon as he served his purpose," Damen continued.
"Sensible," Laurent heard himself say, as though they were discussing the weather or the hunting. As though Nicaise were not missing and they were not standing over a dead body. "The fewer members of your conspiracy who survive, the less chance they'll give away your plans."
"Yes." Damen stepped carefully around the body and turned around, holding out a hand to help Laurent. Laurent ignored the assistance and picked his way past the body with one hand on the wall, committing to memory the place in the passageway where he lay. When this was over, they would send someone to retrieve him, and to see that his body was returned to his family. There was no more that they could do.
They left the body behind in the dimness of the passage, keeping to the left-hand wall as they forged ahead. Several minutes later, they pulled up short. The corridor had ended in a door, closed and piled high with stone blocks.
"That is...unusual," Damen commented. "What could be behind this door, that we are not to see?"
Laurent's heart sped, and he wondered if they were coming close to an answer. "The passage branched off just a few paces ago. There may be another way into the room."
They retraced their steps, and true enough, the corridor led them around to another door--this one unlocked and open just a sliver. Light spilled over the threshold, and Laurent was on the point of reaching for the doorknob when he heard a voice inside.
"...a few hours, no more than that, and your purpose will be served. And then I'll let you go," he heard a voice say through the door. The language and accent were both Veretian, though not of the higher classes. Perhaps one of the soldiers, or the hostlers who had traveled with them? But they had all been approved by Auguste's council...
"No, you won't," Nicaise said. His voice was calm, but there was a strain to it, as of unshed tears. "I've seen your face, and I know your voice. You can't afford to let me go."
A rough laugh. "You're a clever one, aren't you? Very well, then. The longer you do as I tell you, the longer you stay alive. Is that satisfactory?"
"Not really. You're a coward, and a murderer, too. I saw the body in the hallway. What did he do? Did he hear something he shouldn't have? Or was he part of this, too, and you didn't want to share the glory or the money or--"
There was a dull thud of flesh on flesh, followed by a huffed, painful breath. "That's not much of a punch," Nicaise said thickly. "Your boss must keep you around for other reasons--"
Another blow. Laurent swore and reached for the door again, but Damianos caught his arm.
"Damen, he's going to kill him."
"This is a trap. It's why they took Nicaise in the first place, so that you, or Auguste, would come after him."
"Who cares? We have his captor outnumbered."
"Perhaps. Or perhaps there are a dozen others in the room, armed and waiting for the door to open."
"We can't just leave him and go back for reinforcements."
"We won't," Damen said calmly. "There's the other door. I can unblock it, but I need time."
"Nicaise isn't going to give them time. He's trying to goad them into killing him, so he can't be used as bait."
Damen frowned. "How do you know?"
"Because it's what I would do in his place."
"Then I'll hurry. If we come in through both doors, we'll disorient them, which will give us an advantage. But you have to wait for me."
"Go, then," Laurent snapped. "And hurry."
Damen nodded and disappeared around the bend in the corridor, taking the candle with him. In the dark, all Laurent could hear was the pained, sniffling breaths that Nicaise was taking. It was perversely comforting--at least he knew that Nicaise was alive. But if the sound stopped, if his captor got fed up with his mouthiness and decided that he'd played his part…
Inside the room, Nicaise spoke again. "Who's behind all of this? Who told you to do it? You're going to kill me anyway--you might as well tell me."
A bitter, unpleasant chuckle. "That's true enough. It's a secret you'll be taking to your grave, and soon. Let us just say that the throne at Arles will have a new occupant come springtime. A clever boy like you should be able to fill in the rest."
So Laurent and Auguste had been the targets all along. And if they should both perish here, the throne would fall to…
Oh. Everything fell into line like tumblers in a lock.
He heard Nicaise murmur something else, too softly to be heard, and the sound of another blow.
Now that Nicaise knew the truth, it was all the more certain that his captor would kill him--and soon. He'd told Damen that he would wait, but there wasn't time for that now.
Laurent steadied himself and shoved open the door. He blinked, half-blinded by the sudden brightness, and found Nicaise bound to a chair in the center of the room. One of the Veretian guards stood behind him with a sword held delicately against his throat. Govart , Laurent's mind supplied irrelevantly. That was his name.
"Stop where you are or he dies," Govart said.
"Let him go," Laurent replied calmly. "I'm the one you want, anyway."
"No, Laurent, run! He'll kill you!" Nicaise shouted, but Govart's hand tightened on the blade, pushing it against Nicaise's throat, and he subsided with a gasp of pain and fear.
"It's all right, Nicaise," Laurent said, without taking his eyes from Govart. "Trust me."
He didn't dare reply, but his expression said volumes. Laurent stepped just slightly to one side, forcing Govart to turn to keep him in view. Now his back was to the blocked door. He thought that Laurent had come alone; he didn't know that Damen was there, pulling the stones from the doorway. If he could just hold out long enough for Damen to get through…
The door creaked behind him, and Govart jerked, half-turning to watch the door slip open. He didn't step away from Nicaise, but it was all the distraction Laurent was likely to get. He pulled the knife from his belt and threw it. Govart dodged, and the throw that would have caught in his chest only buried itself in the muscle of his arm.
Still, the impact of the knife was enough to make him drop the sword. Laurent dove for the dropped weapon as Govart swore and pulled the knife out of his shoulder. Laurent cursed himself for his foolishness, giving a second blade to Govart. The knife would do the job just as surely as a sword, and the only question was whether he would go for Laurent or Nicaise first…
The door burst open at last, and Damen slammed into Govart, knocking him to the floor. The knife skittered across the dusty floor and fetched up against the far wall.
Damen pinned Govart's hands to the floor. "You were supposed to wait for me."
"You were taking too long," Laurent said. He picked up the sword and stood there for a moment. A sizeable part of him wanted nothing more than to bury it in Govart's back. After all, it was the same fate that he would have offered to any of them, even Nicaise, whose only crime was being adopted into the Veretian royal family...
"If you kill him here, we'll lose our only connection to the mind behind this plot," Damen said quietly.
Laurent abandoned the sword reluctantly and crossed the room to pick up the knife. He cut the ropes binding Nicaise to his chair. Immediately, Nicaise jumped up and threw his arms around Laurent's neck, half-sobbing. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. He said you needed help, that you asked me to come right away, and then he tied me up and brought me here and I--"
Laurent embraced him with his free arm. "Hush. You did nothing wrong. Are you hurt?"
Nicaise stepped back. "No, I'm all right." His lip was swollen, and there was a trail of blood drying beneath his nose, but nothing looked broken.
"Are you sure? I heard him hit you. What did you think you were doing?"
"He was going to use me to kill you. I didn't want to let him."
Laurent cursed quietly. It was a sound strategy, but not one that someone of Nicaise's age should ever have had to consider.
He passed the ropes to Damen, who used them to bind Govart's hands behind his back. When he hauled Govart upright, Govart immediately spat at Laurent's feet. "I won't tell you anything," he snarled.
"You don't have to," Laurent said. "I think we know enough."
Damen cast a questioning glance in his direction, but Laurent shook his head. There was no point in letting on to Govart what Laurent had figured out.
The four of them made an awkward procession through the narrow servants' corridors, fortunately never running into any actual servants in the process. They emerged into a small chamber off the ballroom, where a few palace servants were lingering.
"You there!" Damen called out, and a pair of servants jerked to attention. Their eyes widened as they caught sight of the four of them, two bloody, one bound, and all four covered with dust. "Fetch the guard, right away."
They took off down the corridor at a run, and the four of them waited for the guard to arrive. Damen, Laurent noticed, kept a firm grip on Govart's arm, even though his shoulder was still bleeding rather badly and he looked as likely to faint as to offer any resistance. But no one was going to take a chance that he might get loose.
When the guard arrived, huffing and breathless from the rush, Damen handed over custody of Govart to them. "Laurent, I think the heads of state are still in their meeting. If you take Govart and Nicaise to them, we can finish this."
"If I take them? Where are you going?"
He took a steadying breath. "I'm going to go and fetch Kastor."
"I can beat him, if I have to," he said calmly. "But I think he'll come with me. He'll want to clear his name, I know it."
Laurent harbored deep doubts as to whether Damen would be willing to fight his brother with the stakes set so high, but he had to bring Govart before the royals as quickly as possible. He didn't seem like the cleverest man, but there was no point in giving him more time to invent a lie that might bolster his defense.
"Come on, then." Laurent nudged Govart ahead of him, and they made their way through the winding corridors and up to the council chamber. The guards at the door gave them a look of shock, but they did not try to prevent Laurent from entering.
As soon as the doors opened, the conversation in the room stopped. Laurent was suddenly very aware that the eyes of every royal house on the continent were trained on him.
"Your majesties, I apologize for the intrusion," Laurent said. "But we have found the person responsible for the attacks in the palace, and I wanted to bring him before you immediately."
Auguste rose from the table, leaning heavily on his hands. "Laurent, Nicaise--are you hurt?"
"No. Not lastingly, at any rate."
"Then please do explain."
"The attacks were not the result of a lone actor, but of a conspiracy. Govart was sent as a part of that conspiracy. He was approved by the Veretian council even so, and there is a reckoning to be made there. He kidnapped Nicaise in order to draw a rescue from Auguste or from me, intending to kill us when we arrived to release him. But I do not believe he has done all of this alone. I suspect that he had support from at least one other person in the palace. Damianos has gone to bring the suspect to defend himself."
"Govart, explain yourself. Who selected you for the honor of escorting us to Kempt?" Auguste demanded.
Govart said nothing.
"There are records; we will learn the truth of it as soon as we reach Arles, and it will go worse for you if you withhold the truth from us."
Still Govart did not speak. Perhaps he held some hope that his benefactor in Vere might still contrive to win, or perhaps he only hoped to prolong his life and his usefulness by keeping his information close.
"Govart can keep his silence, if he wishes," Laurent said. "I do not think we need his assistance on this count."
Auguste raised an eyebrow.
This would be the awkward part. Laurent cleared his throat. "Loath though I am to present a family matter before such a council, I must say that I suspect our uncle to be behind these attacks--with at least one accomplice aside from Govart."
"That is a grave charge, Laurent, and not one to be made lightly."
Laurent lowered his voice, tohugh he knew his words were still audible to the whole council. "Who gave you that horse, brother? Who carefully forbade you to ride it, knowing you were in no state to listen?"
Disbelief gave way to resignation, and Auguste shook his head. "He will stand and face these accusations when we return to Vere. But you spoke of an accomplice--will you name this person, as well?"
"I...do not know that it is my business to name him," Laurent said, with a darting glance to where King Theomedes sat. "Damianos has promised to return with him."
As though summoned, the doors opened again, revealing Damianos standing in the hall.
He was alone.
His face was grim, and he crossed the council chamber without speaking to kneel before King Theomedes. "Father, Kastor is not in the palace. At first I feared him taken prisoner, but his pack is gone, and a horse is missing from the stables. I believe that he fled the palace before his betrayal could be made known to us all."
King Theomedes closed his eyes and sank back into his chair. Laurent frowned. He had only briefly seen the king at the various banquets, and he had not noticed anything amiss. But his skin was ashen and he looked... unwell.
Perhaps Damianos would assume the throne sooner than he hoped.
The Queen of Kempt spoke. "Prince Laurent, Prince Damianos--you have our gratitude for helping to uncover this plot. You may rest assured that we will keep the prisoner under guard until it is decided what must be done with him. Until then, you may return to your chambers. Our own royal physician will see to the young one."
They left Govart in the council chamber, chained and guarded by nearly a dozen of the palace soldiers. Laurent sent Nicaise off to the physician, and a weight seemed to fall from his shoulders. It was a relief, yes, but he still felt unmoored. He was conscious of Damen standing beside him, silent and solemn.
"Did you warn him?" Laurent asked. "Did you help him escape?"
Damen sighed. "He was gone already when I got there."
"If he hadn't been, would you have warned him?"
"What answer do you want?" Damen asked, his voice bleak. "Do you want me to tell you that I would have trusted you over my own brother, and brought him before the council instead of protecting him? Is that what you want to hear, so that you will 'win'?"
"Forgive me. I should not have asked."
He shook his head, seeming to sink into himself. "No, do not apologize. I had settled my mind to bring him before the summit, so that he could prove his innocence to us all. That he chose to run instead of doing so… It will be a matter for my father and his soldiers to handle. I hope that he can be brought back to us peacefully."
"As do I." The quiet between them threatened to become awkward as they lingered in the corridor. "I wish you well," Laurent said at last.
There was a faint hesitation before Damen replied. "And I you."
The summit continued for another two days, and it was a return to the deeply boring experience that Laurent had expected from the first. Auguste was not quite prepared to let him wander the palace alone, and everyone agreed that the mood was too solemn for the banquet and festivities that often accompanied the end of the summit.
On their last morning in Kempt, Auguste found him sitting on a bench beneath the window in their chambers. He had let his book fall closed and was looking out over the melting snow, his thoughts wandering.
"One would think you might be happier, having foiled an assassination attempt and preserved the peace of an entire continent."
"Who says I am unhappy?" Laurent replied, without looking away from the window.
Auguste sat lightly on the other end of the bench. "I don't wish to overstep--"
Laurent turned away from the window to look at him. "But you're going to do it anyway," he finished, almost pleasantly. "Go on, then."
"You've been miserable almost since the moment we set foot in the palace. Yes, even before the attacks began. The only time you seemed happy at all is when you were dancing."
And there it was. An irrefutable truth, yet what did Auguste hope to gain by reminding him of it?
"And if I was? It doesn't matter now."
"No? You liked him, before you knew his name. Doesn't that mean anything?"
"It means that I was not possessed of all the facts," he said sharply.
Auguste shook his head. "No, I think you knew him better then than you ever had before."
"I could not even see his face."
"Precisely my point." He sighed. "It is a rare thing, to come to know one's masquerade partner unmasked. There is opportunity there that few have had--yet I cannot tell you what to do. I only ask you to think on it, and to make sure that you do not leave Kempt with regrets."
Laurent swallowed back a protest. "I will...consider it," he said, intending to do no such thing.
But in truth, he spent much of the day thinking about Auguste's words. The sun crossed the sky, and the snow continued to melt. Finally, he could bear the inaction no longer.
While Auguste was occupied, Laurent slipped out of their chambers and went down to the gardens. He wanted to leave the stuffy confines of the palace, even if it meant braving the chill of an early spring afternoon.
There were few others in the gardens, as muddy and cold as they were, and he was left alone to his thoughts as the shadows from the palace walls deepened around him.
He turned a corner and stopped in his tracks. He could hardly say that he was surprised to find Damen in the garden, sitting on that same bench as though he was waiting for Laurent to arrive.
Until that moment, Laurent had hardly known what he might say, given the chance to speak to Damen again. But the sight of him, so similar and so different from the masquerade, brought the whole matter into sharp focus.
"I owe you an apology," Laurent said.
Damen blinked up at him, and then he raised an eyebrow. "I thought we did that part already."
"No. We very intentionally did not do that part, by mutual agreement, but I've reconsidered." He paused to gather himself. "My actions at the masquerade were beyond the pale, and I apologize for them. I can offer no defense for myself, only an explanation. I reacted in anger and hurt, because I could not reconcile the stranger I liked so much with a man I had vowed to hate forever."
Silence met his words. Laurent felt heat rising to his face, and he fought the urge to turn tail and flee back into the palace. This was the price he had to pay for his behavior, and he would not shrink from it, no matter how mortifying it may be.
"You liked me?" Damen asked at length. The corner of his mouth tipped up, revealing one damnable dimple.
"Was the kiss not sufficient evidence?" he snapped. Now his face was well and truly blazing, surely an unappealing shade of red.
Damen rose from the bench. "Then it is only fair that I should tell you that I liked you too, and very much. I still do."
Laurent laughed helplessly. "A pity, then, that we have reached this point so late. We leave at first light."
"As do we," Damen said. "But perhaps your brother has not told you yet. Since my--since Kastor may have had a hand in the troubles here, my father has offered Akielos' aid in setting the Veretian court to rights. You will not be rid of me just yet."
Damen took a step forward, and Laurent met him halfway in an embrace. Pressed together, Laurent could feel the rapid beat of Damen's heart, and he was relieved to know that he was not the only one affected by this confession.
After a long moment of stillness, Damen pulled away, lifting one hand to the angle of Laurent's jaw. He smiled. "My dear serpent. Are you going to bite me again?"
"Kiss me and find out," Laurent challenged.
And Damen did.
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