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The Innocence of Youth

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After hours of complaints, whining, and being a general nuisance, the kid had finally fallen asleep. Curled around his sleeping pallet for warmth, he looked tense and strung tight, pale hands balled into fists and resting by his face. The cool breeze of the night played with his fine hair. It was even lighter than his full-grown counterpart’s. Although, admittedly, that is where their differences ended. The fourteen year old Prince Laurent that lay sleeping in front of him had the same cutting tongue that twenty year old Prince Laurent had wielded like a weapon up until a few days ago.

With a sigh, Damen resigned himself to keeping watch. The little clearing they had found to lay down for the night didn’t offer them any protection from wild animals or, worse, the regent’s guards. The early summer days made sleeping under the stars not as unbearably cold as it would have been only a few months earlier, and this way Damen had a clear shot at getting home. With some extra baggage, he amended, eyes flying back to the child who had fallen in his care.

He remembered how shocking it had been when he had first been dragged into the Prince’s chambers and, instead of a cold, fully grown menace, he had found a half grown boy with a permanent pout and an angry scowl. The resemblance to Nicaise had made him uncomfortable, but he hadn’t had the time to dwell on it between fighting off three armed assassins and making sure that the kid was safe.

The kid, as it turned out when he gutted one of the assassins himself with a glare and a huff, was more than safe. The kid was also, apparently, Prince Laurent of Vere.

This Damen had found out after being kicked in the shin, a high, unbroken voice sneering in his face “Who are you? Where is my uncle the Regent?” while holding a knife to Damen’s gut, right between his ribs.

Whatever had been in the drink that had turned an acidic grown man back into his acidic adolescent self, Damen had bigger issues at hand than worrying about the specifics of the plot. Like being as far away as possible from Arles before dawn.

He could have left the Prince behind. He should have left the Prince behind. But whatever shortcomings his grown self had, whatever cruel nature pushed him to play games of cats and mice with people, the person in front of Damen was a helpless child who had just survived an assassination attempt. He was alone. And, Damen realized belatedly, that would not be the last assassination attempt that young Prince Laurent would encounter in the near future.

So he had taken the boy with him in his escape, weathering his endless complaints all the way from Arles to where they had camped that night, a couple of days later. He’d been uncooperative and recalcitrant, angry and venomous, and he had mentioned repeatedly that his uncle would come save him, and then the Akielon would be really sorry he had ever stolen Laurent away from his uncle’s care.

Damen did not know if he should have been surprised that a younger Laurent did not share his older counterpart’s dislike for his uncle, but the boy’s sharp, unpolished wit reminded him once more, uncomfortably, of the pet Nicaise. He decided not to mention how it was very likely that his uncle would not, in fact, want to save Laurent.

Sighing again at the thought of the burden he had brought upon himself, Damen put out the fire that was simmering down between them and laid down to stare at the dark sky, tracing constellations in his brain and thinking of the great legends of old carved in the stars above their heads.

In the morning, Laurent was not in a better mood. He sat in a corner watching with sullen eyes as Damen put away the scant belongings he had managed to grab from the Prince’s rooms. Damen had no patience for children, but he could understand how vulnerable the other must be feeling.

“Are you here to ransom me back to my uncle?” Laurent suddenly asked, his voice quiet but his eyes sharp and intelligent beneath his blond fringe.

Surprised by the first non inflammatory words addressed to him since the beginning of their little trip, Damen paused while folding away the pallet Laurent had slept in. “No,” he finally said simply, slipping the satchel on his shoulder.

Laurent jumped up from the rock he was sitting on, lips tight in barely controlled fury. “Will you sell me to your brother then, so he can kill me like he killed my brother?”

Damen turned around to face the princeling properly, shocked and slightly confused. “My brother? Who do you think I am?”

“That’s obvious, isn’t it? You’re Kastor, the bastard Prince of Akielos,” Laurent scoffed haughtily, his nose upturned in distaste.

The distaste was so openly displayed on the young face that Damen almost laughed. “I wouldn’t insult the royal family of Akielos to an Akielon whose mercy you fall under, if I were you. It’s not very smart.”

Laurent paled slightly, but he clenched his jaw in youthful stubbornness and barrelled on. “Ah yes, you people are sensitive about it, aren’t you? How is it, to grow up in the shadow of an animal like Damianos, your impure, corrupt birth a constant presence in your barbaric court?”

All the slight amusement Damen had been feeling up to that point evaporated and he found himself grabbing the boy’s shoulder in a punishing grip, hard enough to watch him grimace but not hurt him seriously. “Watch your mouth, kid. Do not disrespect the royal family in front of me again,” he said staring into the wide blue eyes that were now fixed on him, following his every move.

Releasing him, Damen took a step back. “And you’re wrong, I’m not Kastor of Akielos,” he added, almost as an afterthought. His brows furrowed. “What made you think I was?”

Laurent looked at him warely, his hand raising to touch his own shoulder where Damen had held him. He was trembling slightly. He didn’t look like he believed Damen completely but he did look more confused than upset now. “You look like Damianos of Akielos, but you’re way too old to be him.”

Damen stopped, ice in his veins and his vision going dark around the edges. Had the Prince of Vere always known who he was? He recalled, suddenly, their first meeting. He remembered the shock and the horror in Laurent’s eyes. He saw, as clear as dawn on white cliffs, how differently from all the other slaves Laurent had treated him.

Unsure on his next course of action, Damen turned away. “No, I’m not Kastor,” he repeated quietly, his gaze averted.

Laurent was not appeased by his answer. “But you are related to him,” he insisted, marching forward with steady steps, his back ramrod straight and something wild hiding in the corners of his eyes.

Damen was not going to let a spoiled, angry child intimidate him. The Laurent in front of him might have been innocent, but Damen knew exactly what kind of person he would grow up to be (Except, a treacherous thought escaped his mind, he knew who you were this entire time). “I am not related to Damianos of Akielos either,” he stated truthfully. He could not be related to Damianos if he was Damianos.

The kid sagged, as though his strings had been cut, defeat clear in all the lines of his body. He sniffled, his trembling hands raising to cover his eyes with his palms. When his downturned mouth trembled, Damen realized that he was one wrong word away from crying.

Horrified, Damen took a step back. He had been reared to run a country and educated in the subtle arts of war and chieftainship. He knew how to lead men to victory and how to raise soldiers’ morale. Not one single part of his training had prepared him to deal with a crying child.

Steeling himself, he took a step forward just as he heard the first, quiet sob. The Prince of Vere, newly turned fourteen years of age, newly orphaned and brotherless (in his mind) and in the hands of whom he considered his enemy, away from the safety of court, was sobbing in front of him. His little shoulders were shaking and, from what Damen could see of his face underneath the hands that covered the majority of it, his cheeks were as red as a tomato.

You have led men into battle, Damen reminded himself. You have faced war and death and bloodshed. Somehow, the thought did not lend him the courage he would have expected. With a sigh, he crouched in front of the little Prince, bringing a hand to his shoulder and holding it there lightly after he felt him flinch.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said truthfully. He did not rejoice in death, nor in the suffering of others. He did not regret his actions, it had been necessary to save the lives of his own men. He was not going to explain that to a sobbing, mourning child, however.

Laurent stilled, sucking in a sharp breath. His hands slowly moved away from his face and his chilling eyes, rimmed in red and still wet with tears, stared at Damen blankly before darting for a second to the hand Damen had placed on his thin, bony shoulder. Did the boy ever eat?

Damen took his hand away, remembering fire on his back and a cool gaze in the baths of Arles.”You'll be fine,” he promised. “I’ll take care of you.”

Laurent’s face fell, his blue gaze slipping to the ground with a soft “Oh,” as Damen stood up once more. The boy seemed to be confused for a second, looking back at Damen with a carefully blank expression. “Will you hurt me?”

“No, of course not,” Damen replied instinctively, suddenly just as confused as the young Prince. “I’m trying to keep you safe. You saw the bloodshed that happened in your rooms a few days ago.That wasn’t right, you were alone. I’ll make sure nothing like that ever happens again. You don’t have to be alone anymore.”

Laurent listened to Damen ramble on with quiet acceptance. Instead of calming down, he seemed just as defeated as when he had learned that Damen was not related to Damianos, and thus would not be of use to Laurent on his quest for revenge.

With one fluid, practiced motion, he went to his knees in front of Damen, his swift hand moving to the laces tying Damen’s trousers in the front.

Damen’s jaw dropped in shock, and for a moment he was frozen and revolted, his mind unwillingly going back to Nicaise once more. Jumping back, he grabbed Laurent’s thin wrists, pushing them away.

“What are you doing?” he asked in alarm.

“What does it look like I’m doing?” Laurent scowled, his cheeks still burning bright red.

“Not,” at a loss for words, Damen paused, breathing deeply. “Why. Why are you doing this.”

“I don’t,” Laurent blinked, his clear eyes becoming wet with unshed tears once more and his mouth curling in distaste. “I don’t understand. You said you’d take care of me.”

“Yes,” Damen agreed, something tight and hot curling at the base of his stomach and bile threatening to rise up. “Yes, I said I’d take care of you, because it’s the right thing to do. I don’t require any;” he had to stop once more here, his distaste and his confusion shadowing everything else. “I don’t require any services from you,” he finished, helping the little Prince back to his feet.

Laurent looked just as confused. “But why? I know I’m pretty.”

Clenching his teeth, Damen let go of his wrists, watching with only mild guilt as Laurent gripped his own wrist tightly, rubbing at it. “You’re a child. You shouldn’t go around offering adults things like that. You don’t know what you’re getting into.”

Now Laurent looked offended. “I know very well what I’m getting into. I’m not a virgin.”

Damen stared at Laurent once more. At fourteen, he looked as youthful as any fourteen year old could look, his voice unbroken and his cheeks puffed out with childhood softness.Twenty year old Laurent had worn his laced up clothing like armor and had kept every man at a distance. Suddenly, he felt sick again.

“Whatever has already happened, you still should not go around offering adults things like this. It’s not right.”

“But why,” Laurent asked again, something vulnerable in his voice. “I don’t have anything else to give you if you want to take care of me.”

“Because you’re a child,” Damen explained as calmly as he could. “Adults should not ask anything in return from children.”

Laurent did not look convinced, but Damen was not about to continue this conversation. Efficiently, he fixed the straps of his satchel, which had fallen on the ground, and put it back on his shoulder. They had a long journey ahead, and maybe they could find a horse soon.

As they left their little makeshift camp, Damen’s mind reeled with what had happened. He thought he could feel dirt underneath his skin, eating away to everything he did not want to think about.

His mind pushed away thoughts of Nicaise and his wide blue eyes, how Laurent’s blue eyes were just as wide, and how strangely close they had seemed in Arles. He tried not to wonder what it must have been like for young, mourning Laurent who had just lost everything.

Almost everything, amended Damen, thinking of the Regent with unease. The man who kept pets like Nicaise and who tried to have his nephew drugged, raped and murdered in his own palace.

With a sour taste in his mouth and disgust curling in his belly, he marched south with Laurent, in search of a horse that could take them to their destination faster.