Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Story excerpt: Triumvirate

 Hi darlins!

Between Christmas madness and the fact that my next MFA residency starts on Saturday (yep, that would be January 2nd, SO SOON) I haven't been able to write a satisfying new chapter of Rivalries yet. I know what it's going to be (dirty, is what it's going to be--delightfully dirty) but time is against me, especially as I prepare Off The Beaten Path (my M/M shifter novel) for re-release. So today I'm giving you the beginning (three free chapters plus two you'd otherwise have to pay for) of Triumvirate, my Radish app story. I hope to have more Rivalries for you next week! There will also be an Off The Beaten Path excerpt, so look out for that. 

Triumvirate will eventually be available off the app, by the way, so no worries about me teasing you forever with this if reading apps aren't your thing ;)

Thank you for your understanding, and Happy New Year!

***


 

Chapter One

 

The day Symon found out he was to be married, his magic backfired. It happened sometimes to mages, especially those who cared to experiment the way Symon did—the occasional spell proved too fierce to fully contain, or a recipe for sparks of light became sparks of fire when mixed with the ashes of a hundred-year oak’s first acorn.

In this case, a spell for casting a quick-moving fog of concealment abruptly changed to a frost twenty-eight seconds in, when the stabilizer for the ice elemental crumbled from cold. Symon contained the fallout, but it left him with mild frostbite at the very tips of his fingers and a chilled feeling that seeped all the way down to his bones. He showed up for dinner with the rest of the royal family feeling off-balance and fatigued, which was the only reason he could think of that he didn’t immediately start shouting at Queen Melisse, his stepmother, when she broke the news of his upcoming nuptials over the fruit course.

Symon dropped his apple, the yellow-green fruit rolling off the side of the table as his step-brother Darius choked on a bite of his rabbit casserole. “Married? What do you mean, I’m to be married?”

“Just what I said.” Melisse’s voice was calm, but her brow was slightly furrowed, like she hardly believed her own words. “Our proposal was accepted. Congratulations, Sy. You’ll soon be consort to one of the most powerful men in the Southlands.”

“I didn’t know what we’d made a proposal.” Symon looked over at his father in confusion, but the expression on the other man’s face was that of grim acceptance. “What…when…”

“It was routine outreach,” Melisse explained. “Ever since you reached your majority four years ago, I’ve periodically sent letters to our neighboring countries soliciting an alliance. Given how Harrier violence is increasing with every passing month, I thought the attempt itself worthwhile…a show of willingness, if you will.” She picked up her wine glass and took a sip. Her usually elegant hand noticeably shook. “One of them sent back a reply yesterday in the affirmative. They want a marriage alliance between our families, and have accepted you as our representative.”

“Representa—Mel, this is marriage we’re talking about, not a border treaty or a meeting with the local yeomen’s guild!” Symon protested. “Marriage is, is, it’s—this is supposed to be a big deal for royals! And I’m not really even one of you.”

“Sy,” Melisse began to protest, but Symon was on a roll now, standing up so abruptly he almost knocked his chair over.

“I’m not! My father was your guardsman before he became your consort! I don’t have a drop of royal blood in me!”

“You’re one of the most powerful mages in the entire kingdom of Bekkon,” she pointed out.

Symon laughed. The sound felt caustic in his mouth. “A kingdom of less than a hundred thousand souls living in a remote forest on the least hospitable edge of this entire continent. Yes, what a power that must make me.”

Melisse stood up to match him. “It does.” She was almost as tall as Symon, and quite beautiful at the age of fifty. The silver strands threading through her dark hair illuminated it, casting light like a halo around her head. Mel was gentle, and kind, and Symon loved her like she truly was his mother.

It made her betrayal of his trust all the more difficult to comprehend. “You are a power, Sy,” she went on. “You’ve mastered every school of magic our people know, even the fast-casting that is beyond most of us. You’re quick-witted and bright, and you have a way about you that makes people want to know you. You have so much to offer, anyone would be glad to get you as a spouse.”

For a moment, she looked regretful. “If I could do it again, I would phrase my interest more carefully. I would include a waiting period in the contract, so that you could get accustomed to the idea of marriage before having it thrust upon you like this. But after so long, I hardly remembered the offer was made.”

“How could you forget bartering me away like one of your royal stags, freed to the forest only so that it may be hunted down?” Symon snapped.

“That’s enough,” his father said, standing as well. Symon looked at him and for the first time, his anger began to fail. His father Jon looked…desolate wouldn’t have been too strong a term. Betrayed, bereaved, but also determined. “Enough, Sy,” he said more softly, and Symon felt his silver-ringed hands begin to shake.

“I can’t do this. How am I supposed to marry someone I don’t even know?” he whispered.

His father sighed. “With strength of will and faith in your heart.”

“Faith in what? Who am I even supposed to marry? Is it—” His heart skipped a beat. “Tell me it’s not a woman.” The very idea that he could be married to a woman, that he could be destined to share the curse that he wasn’t yet sure he himself had escaped with some innocent babe, sickened him.

“It’s a man,” Melisse assured him. “A prince of Riyale.”

“Prince of Riyale? The shifter family?” Symon frowned, trying to focus, but Darius finally got control over his airways again and finally spoke up.

“Prince Arven’s been promised to the princess of Mersaighe since he was a child. Even if that’s fallen apart, Sy wouldn’t be the first or even the fiftieth choice for a replacement.”

It was a hard thing to hear, but a true one as well. Symon wasn’t of royal blood—he and his father were royal by marriage only, and that was a thin currency in a time of expansive ruling families all looking to make ties with each other.

“Not that prince,” Melisse replied. She looked as though she were gathering herself to weather an outburst. “Your intended is his uncle, Petur Alloui.”

Symon went utterly still. Petur Alloui. He was a shifter, like the rest of the ruling family of Riyale and a significant subset of their population—it was a local, endemic magic, passed down in the blood and refined through diligent practice. The prince, though, was reputed to be the best shifter of his generation.

All shifters took on the form of an animal. Some could become two, or even three. The best of them could assume a battle form, a blend of animal and man that was greater than the sum of all its parts. Petur was one of the only shifters in the kingdom of Riyale who could do that, something that had been verified by sources Symon trusted. Petur was the reason Symon had made a point of researching shifter-disruption spells. Just in case.

And now you’re going to be married to him.

“But he can’t marry the prince!” Darius protested.

Symon’s heart warmed a little to hear his stepbrother speak up for him. They hadn’t generally gotten along, too different in temperament to want to have much to do with each other but too close in age not to be forced into close proximity, but they’d made an effort on occasion for their parents’ sakes. Right now, Symon was grateful for it.

“Because Petur is already married!”

Wait, what?


 

Chapter Two

 

Some of his confusion must have shown on Symon’s face, because his father raised a placating hand. “Prince Petur is not married.”

“He’s as good as,” Darius muttered. “He doesn’t keep a High Harrier in his court because they look pretty. They’ve been fucking for over a decade.”

“Darius.” The queen’s voice was as cold as ice. “If you cannot control your tongue, I’ll still it for you.” She had the magic to do that, to strike any of them dumb—Melisse’s mage powers were inherent, manipulatable by her will alone. She didn’t have to rely on amulets and ingredients like most of the rest of them did. She was a true daughter of the royal house of Bekkon.

Her son couldn’t even do magic the way Symon could. Absently, with the part of his mind that wasn’t shrieking with horror, Symon wondered what she was planning on doing about Darius.

She looked back at Symon, squaring her shoulders. “Prince Petur has a lover, it’s true, although many say he’s more like a bodyguard. The man is a High Harrier, so he’s immune to magic of all kinds. He’s saved the prince’s life numerous times since they joined forces.”

It was almost too fantastic to believe. “What is a High Harrier doing making an alliance with a prince of Riyale?” Symon asked, intrigued despite himself. “They’re supposed to dedicate themselves to wiping out magic of all kinds.”

“No one knows the details,” Melisse said.

“You could be the first!” Darius joked. “And then tell us, so we have something to hold over the royals of Riyale.”

It was too much. Darius might be kidding, but this was Symon’s life they were talking about here. Riyale was twenty times the size of Bekkon, and immensely more powerful. The cost of being caught spying…he could only imagine the price he would be made to pay.

Symon’s stomach churned. He shook his head. “I think I’ll skip the rest of dinner.”

“Sy, please.” Melisse extended a hand to him. “Please don’t go. Stay and talk with us about this. It isn’t as bad as you’re thinking, it really isn’t. Arranged marriages have their trials, it’s true, but I survived mine very well before my late husband’s death.”

“Your words betray you,” Symon said as calmly as he could, “by saying that you ‘survived’ it.” He turned and left before he had to look at Melisse’s wounded eyes, or listen to Darius exclaim about how Symon couldn’t talk about his father that way. He walked blindly, not caring where he went—there was no such thing as a safe place for him anymore. His future had been laid out, and his choice was no part of it.

He nearly stepped into a doorframe before a hand caught him by the shoulder and drew him back. “Careful, son,” his father murmured, turning him around. Symon didn’t look up, didn’t say anything. His father sighed. “Let’s take this to your rooms, all right? I’ll tell you everything I know about this, lay it all out on the table.” He moved closer, lowering his voice to a whisper. “If you truly can’t stand it, I won’t make you do it. I’ll help you run before I consign you to a fate like that.”

Despite himself, Symon’s interest sparked. His father was a man of his word—the most honorable man to be found in Bekkon’s small but secure castle, that was for certain. He nodded, and let his father lead him back toward his own rooms.

It made sense to talk about sensitive subjects there. Symon had long since spelled his chambers against eavesdropping, and a spell of confusion carved into his table could be activated with a single word, making every conversation that passed over it unintelligible to anyone not touching the charmed wood.

Of course, first there had to be space to touch. Symon hastily cleared away the armful of scrolls he’d been studying before dinner, moving them to his messy, unmade bed, then came back and sat down. His father sat down across from him, and Sy activated the table’s spell.

“All right,” he said. “Tell me everything.”

“Word is that the royal family of Riyale has been the target of numerous assassination attempts over the past six months,” Jon said, not holding anything back. “It’s gotten bad enough that they sent the heir apparent to sea to keep him safe. The main target since then, from what I understand, has been Prince Petur.”

Symon groaned. “Wonderful, so Melisse wants to marry me off to every bloodblade’s favorite quarry.”

“He’s weathered the attack well enough, given his attributes and the help of his pet Harrier.”

It didn’t make sense. “Why do they bother to try? Why not attempt to kill his sister, Queen Tania? She’s the ruler and the head of the family, after all. Wouldn’t that be more disruptive to Riyale?”

His father shrugged. “Possibly, although Petur is definitely the power behind the throne in that country. Word is that he maintains a vast spy network.” Jon grimaced. “I can attest to that, actually. Information passed on from his sources has already saved Melisse’s life twice, and mine once.”

Symon’s breath, rising with indignation, caught in his throat. “You were almost killed?” he gasped. “When?”

“Last month, when Melisse and I were coming back from the Eastern Convocation.” The convocation was a yearly meeting of the five rulers of the easternmost countries in the Southlands. “We were attacked just five miles outside of Drangar. Fortunately, we were warned by one of Petur’s shifters a few minutes before the arrows started flying, and Mel was able to get a spell of deflection up to protect us.”

It sounded a bit suspicious to Symon. “Why didn’t he come and warn you himself? How do you know he wasn’t the one who orchestrated the attack?”

“Because he was also under attack,” Jon explained patiently. “An attack that succeeded in wounding him rather severely, but he still managed to send his people to deliver warnings to the rest of us. It saved a lot of lives.”

“Why didn’t his High Harrier save him?” Symon said, trying not to be swayed toward softness by the fact that his father owed his life to the man who he was now betrothed to. “Couldn’t be bothered?”

“He was also wounded.” Jon sounded a bit disappointed by Symon’s take. “Near to death. A High Harrier can’t be helped with a healing spell or a rejuvenation potion, Sy. Prince Petur was healed in minutes. Deyvid…was not.”

His name is Deyvid. Symon tried to ignore the thread of curiosity that crawled through him and refocused on the facts. “You were only a day late. You said you ran into weather on the road. Why didn’t you tell us the truth?”

“At that time, we thought it was an isolated incident,” Jon replied. “Every party leaving the Convocation was attacked, after all, not just ours. Why worry you over nothing?” He held up a hand to forestall Symon’s immediate arguments. “And I know an attack is never nothing, but there was no need to make it into something you’d obsess over either.”

“I don’t obsess,” Symon muttered. His father raised a skeptical eyebrow. “I don’t always obsess.”

“You would if it meant doing more to keep me or Mel from harm, though.”

Just because his father was probably right didn’t mean Symon had to like it. “What changed your mind, then?”

“The second attack on Mel.” Jon’s mouth was a straight, grim line. “It happened in her private garden.”

What? No… “How could anyone not in the service of the castle get that far? The spells, the warning spells, they should have—”

“It was Cytemna who tried it. With a charmed blade.”

“Cytemna…” How could that be? Cytemna had been Melisse’s lady-in-waiting ever since they were both girls—and she’d been instrumental in introducing Jon to the queen, since she was the baroness of the district that Symon’s family came from, and had been moved by the tragedy of his infamous mother’s death. “That’s impossible.”

“We thought so as well, but it appears that even the most trusted friend can be manipulated with the right leverage.” Jon sighed heavily. “You know her husband is Riyalian?”

Everyone knew that. Theirs was a legendary love story in the gossiping court of Kestre, Bekkon’s capital. “Yes…”

“He journeyed back to that country some months ago and never returned. Cytemna was sent one of his fingers three weeks ago, along with a mandate—to kill Melisse or receive a new box every week, with a new piece of her husband inside. She was frantic, desperate. She made the attempt, but it was a poor one. Tried to turn the knife on herself as soon as Melisse stopped her.”

Symon gripped the edge of the table tightly. “What happened?”

“Melisse had her sent home, under guard, and made inquiries in Riyale. Her contact traced the letter, and the body part, to a farm on the outskirts of the capitol. It had already been abandoned, and the contact found the body of Cytemna’s husband in a cellar, under a preservation spell.”

“He was already dead,” Symon murmured.

Jon nodded. “But excellently preserved, so well that not even Melisse could tell the finger hadn’t been cut from a live man’s hand. She sent her thanks, and the reply to those thanks arrived today.”

“Along with the marriage contract.”

“Yes.” Jon reached out and took Symon’s hands in his own. “I don’t know why they accepted it now. I don’t even know why Mel left it extant for so long. If I had known, I would have made her rescind the offer.”

“It doesn’t look good when a ruler takes back things that should rightfully be hers to bestow,” Symon said wryly. “Even if no one wants them.”

“Sy…”

“He must not know the truth about me, if he’s considering marrying me.”

Jon’s expression became pained, the lines around his eyes deepening with sorrow. “You escaped your mother’s curse, Sy. I’m sure of it—we did everything possible to ensure that, none of it was for nothing. It can’t have been for nothing.”

“But we don’t know that. And we won’t know that for at least another year,” Symon said, then dismissed the subject. It was an old argument between himself and his father, and not one that would be resolved tonight. “Petur is Melisse’s contact in Riyale, isn’t he.”

“Yes,” Jon confirmed.

“Why do you think he wants me?” It couldn’t be because a man that busy, a man who already had a devoted lover, a man who didn’t need to produce heirs to ensure the security of his kingdom, wanted a spouse all of a sudden. He certainly couldn’t be in any kind of love, or even like, with Symon—they’d never met before.

Jon sighed. “I think that if a country as remote as ours is weathering threats to the queen, then a country as big and important as Riyale must be attracting far more unwanted attention.”

Ah. “You think Prince Petur wants a handy mage.”

“Riyalians have never been disposed to the kind of magic that comes from studying spells,” Jon agreed. “They’re shifters, and that’s always been enough to thwart any serious attack. Why wouldn’t it be? A person who can take three shapes, or four, a person who can increase their stamina and strength without sacrificing their human intellect…it’s a remarkable power, no doubt about that. But it isn’t the only power, and their spell casters are novices compared to you and Mel. So do they want you for your magic? Yes, very likely.”

Jon leaned forward and gave Symon’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “But Sy, that doesn’t mean that they won’t learn to love you for who you are.”

Symon vehemently disagreed, but he knew that voicing his disagreement would only distress his father. “Perhaps.”

After all, stranger things had happened. He just couldn’t think of any of them right now.


 

 

Chapter Three

 

In the two weeks since his engagement was announced, Symon had been a busy man. He deliberately made himself that way, too busy to ruminate on what was coming at him, too hurried to spare more than a thought about the marriage he was heading into. He had a laboratory to pack up, documents to categorize and store, potions to brew and charms to charge with spells. He made himself a magical response for anything he could think of—too slow? Speed potion! Too frantic? Activate the charm in the shape of the small, misshapen moon on his bracelet and his heartrate and respiration would forcibly slow, calming him.

Did he need a way to hold off a beast of a shifter long enough to work one of his more volatile spells? Stasis charm, two of them, in the form of innocuous bloodstone beads dangling from his earlobes. Symon had never been happier that Bekkoners were known for their love of jewelry, because it gave him all the cover he needed to drape himself with protective spells and have no one be the wiser. Of course, none of them would work on a High Harrier…but then, a creature like that wouldn’t know what he was carrying. Another mage might be able to identify them based on their faint auras, but Symon could always claim they were simple charms for good fortune, nothing more.

Queen Melisse came to speak to him privately once, just once, on the subject of his preparations. “You ought to spend more time studying the court of Riyale and less time preparing for an assault,” she chided him as she looked at his spread of magic-infused equipment. “You’re marrying a prince. Understanding that court’s politics will be required of you.”

You’re the one who has nearly died twice now due to assassins that my betrothed warned you of,” Symon pointed out. “Don’t tell me it isn’t prudent to stock up on defenses.”

The queen looked at him sadly. “But not against your own betrothed, Sy.”

Ha! She could moan all she wanted about his lack of faith, but Symon wasn’t about to give up his trove for the sake of pacifying a fiancĂ© who in all likelihood was only marrying him for his skill at magic. “Don’t worry,” he said coldly, treating her with contempt that should have merited him being thrown in a dungeon. Good thing she was his stepmother and he could get away with it—for now. “I won’t embarrass you or Bekkon at court. I can handle that sort of thing with my eyes closed.”

Melisse spread her hands. “If you say so.” She stood and walked to the door, only glancing back once she was already halfway out. “But Riyale is not Bekkon, Symon, and despite our superior skill as mages, they do have their own kind of magic. If you would listen to any of my counsel, make it this: don’t underestimate them, especially not your future husband and his lover. They have far more experience in the ways of the world than you do.”

“Thank you for reminding me again that I’m little better than a babe in swaddling clothes to my betrothed.” Symon kept his head high until the door closed behind Melisse, then sighed and collapsed in a heap beside his table. The truth was, he was nervous about being presented at court in Riyale. Tomorrow his escort would arrive to ferry him thence, and then…he’d be alone.

His father had protested the very idea of Symon going off to be married without anyone from his family to stand with him, but Mel had insisted on this point. “We can’t risk giving any assassins more targets,” she’d said firmly when Jon brought it up during their family dinner. “Symon and his escort will move faster by themselves than they would burdened with any of us—even you, my love. I’m assured that he’ll be in very good hands.”

“It isn’t right,” Jon snapped. “None of this is right.”

“Might makes right,” Darius had said snidely, and it had taken all Symon’s willpower not to prove his stepbrother correct by punching him so hard his perfect nose broke.

He’d forced a smile instead. “It’ll be fine, Pa. I’m pretty good at handling myself these days, after all, and I wouldn’t want to be married with a lot of fuss and ceremony here at home anyway.” Not that marriage would have ever been an option for him here in Kestre, or anywhere in Bekkon for that matter, but now wasn’t the time to use that argument. “It’s all right. Really.”

But sitting alone in his room, staring at his packed trunks and his new set of traveling clothes laid out for tomorrow, Symon didn’t really feel like it was all right.

He knew next to nothing about Prince Petur, other than the bare facts. Those did little to soften his harrowing image: he was a masterful shifter, able to become three different animals as well as taking a battle form. He was the spymaster of Riyale, the man who sent out warnings that kept people safe while facing down his own assassins with brutal efficacy. He was thirty-seven, fifteen years older than Symon, and for the past ten of those years had been in a relationship with a High Harrier, a member of a sect so devoted to wiping out magic’s existence that they excised its influence from their bodies.

Were they actually lovers, or was it just a ploy to scare mages that might plot against the prince? Were either of them handsome, or did they find common ground in their ugliness? Symon had never seen a Harrier before, much less a High Harrier, but he knew the lore about the world’s pervasive magical energy. More than that, he felt it, felt it in every footstep he took, every spell he cast that let him draw on that latent power.

Magic was everywhere, literally everywhere. It was what gave color to the world, and High Harriers, men—it was always men, from what Symon understood—who cut themselves off from that lose their own color. They became washed out, grey-skinned ghosts with pale hair and paler eyes. They were said to be hideous to look upon. How did the prince stand it? Hell, how did the High Harrier get anywhere discreetly, when he looked like such a roadside attraction?

You’re being unkind. They might truly love each other. And even if they don’t, it doesn’t pay to make up foolish scenarios in your head before meeting either of them. Symon didn’t want to come into this marriage more scared than he needed to be, and picturing the corpse-like bodyguard and lover of his intended wasn’t going to help.

They want you there. Whatever else is hidden from you, you know that much, at least. They wanted him for this marriage. Otherwise they wouldn’t have accepted Mel’s offer. It had been unwise of her to put it out there in the first place, she’d admitted that, but now that it had been claimed…surely a small part of Symon was allowed to feel happy. Marriage would never have happened for him here, never—there were no women out there as brave or as foolhardy as his father had been, in loving his mother so well that he had looked past her…difficulties.

Jon always said that Symon was the blessing of his life, that he’d never regretted anything about his marriage, but Symon often wondered how much of that was truth and how much was a sweet lie poured into a child’s ear in an attempt to keep him from asking uncomfortable questions.

Symon scrubbed his hands over his face and looked at his pile of belongings again. Should he repack the trunk with the scrolls and books in it? He’d put all the scrolls on top, he was nearly sure of it, but nearly wasn’t quite good enough when you were talking Zifarna’s Eyes in Elements, and he’d never forgive himself if he somehow crushed his mother’s scratchily written, thin-backed book of herbal cures and poultices—

A knock sounded at his door, jolting him out of his prevarication. Symon looked at the wooden edifice warily. He’d already spoken with both his father and Mel before turning in, and if this was Darius coming to rib him again over his fate, Symon was likely to do something he’d regret. On the other hand, he couldn’t really be punished anymore for bloodying his stepbrother’s pretty face, so…

“Sy? It’s Colten. Are you still up?”

 

 

Chapter Four

 

Colten? Symon jumped up from his chair and raced to the door. What the hells, how was Colten back from the northern border already? Symon jerked the door open and came face to face with his burly, blond best friend and occasional lover, and a wave of pure relief washed over him. I can still say goodbye. He’d sent a letter, but…

“Sy!” Colten grabbed Symon in a rough hug. He stank like griffin, which meant he hadn’t waited for a horse, he’d taken a special lift back to the capitol. “What in all the lowly hells is going on? I’m gone for a month and you go and get yourself engaged to a prince?

“It wasn’t my idea, I assure you,” Symon said dryly, squeezing Colten tight before pulling him into his suite and shutting the door behind him. “Do you need food? Wine?” He had a carafe of the castle’s own purple house vintage and a platter of finger foods that he hadn’t touched.

Colten’s dark eyes lit up when he saw the offerings. “Both, if you don’t mind. But also an explanation of what’s been going on here. Engagement? Marriage? I thought you had decided never to marry anyone.”

“It’s a very long story.” Symon sat down and went through the saga of his impending nuptials while Colten decimated his meal. It was good to see him again—unexpected, since he was an officer in the griffin cavalry and had been dispatched to the border for a six-month tour shortly before all of this mess came about. He must have bargained hard for the right to come back to the capitol and visit Symon before he left.

The thought warmed him…and made him feel slightly desolate. He didn’t have a friend like Colten waiting for him where he was going. He would be utterly alone there, and likely no one would reach out to him unless he himself took the first step. He hadn’t had to do that with Colten—they had known each other for practically Symon’s whole life, friends as children that persisted through change and tragedy until Symon found himself in the castle, and Colten became a member of Bekkon’s most elite military unit.

By the time Symon was done, the food was gone and Colten was silent, his expression pensive as his long, calloused fingers traced circles on the table. “I didn’t realize Riyale was so liberal in their marriage laws.”

“Only for those who aren’t the direct heir,” Symon clarified. “The royal line must be maintained, but Prince Petur is fifth in line to the throne after his sister, nephew, and two nieces. I daresay he feels safe enough in pursuing a childless union, especially since he is apparently quite open about his relationship to the High Harrier.”

“Deyvid Cleareyes,” Colten mused. “I’ve heard stories of him. I know it seems fantastic that a person like that could make any sort of alliance with shifters, but he seems to be genuine. He’s smart, too.” The admiration in Colten’s voice was clear. “He might not be susceptible to magic, but he knows enough about it to use it. The cav was in a bad way for a while just before I got in—lots of aerial attacks by Harrier wyverns. No spell the riders threw at them seemed to have any effect, so the commander finally wrote to Cleareyes to request assistance. He didn’t come himself, but the tactics he sent back worked like a charm. Methods for distracting the wyverns, tricks to get them to give up, even temperatures they dislike, and suggestions on the most effective spells for creating those scenarios.”

“He helped you?” Symon couldn’t help being incredulous. “What did he get out of it?”

“That’s just it—nothing. The garrison captain offered money, a custom spell, even a griffin mount, but Cleareyes declined it all. Said he was glad to help and hoped the cav had  better luck in the future.”

Well, that was a nice gesture. Perhaps Symon’s life in Riyale wouldn’t be an abject misery if Petur’s lover was this open-minded. He was done talking about the other man, though. “I’ll miss you,” he confessed. Acts of affection between himself and Colten were easy, but words of affection had always come harder.

“And I you.” Colten held out his hand. “I can’t stay long, I promised my wing commander that I’d head back this evening, but…there’s a little more time.”

Symon’s blood heated as he caught on to what his friend was suggesting. He laughed, going for coy but likely coming on a bit desperate. “I don’t know, you do stink of griffin, after all, perhaps I should make you—whoa!”

Colten had gotten up and grabbed him, pulling Symon to him before he could finish his mock complaint. Their bodies pressed together, Symon forgot all about the griffin and focused solely on the heat between them, and the insistent press of Colten’s cock against his own. They kissed, and Symon wrapped his arms around his lover’s neck and gave in to the rising, familiar passion between them.

“What do you want?” Colten murmured as soon as their lips parted. “Tell me what you want.”

“Fuck me,” Symon said immediately, shameless and undaunted by it. “Please fuck me, let me feel you inside of me one last time.”

Colten moaned. “You’re going to be the death of me.” He guided Symon back to his tall, soft bed and pressed him down against the silk comforter. He leaned in for a kiss, something they didn’t often do—that wasn’t the kind of physical intimacy they usually went with—but tonight it felt appropriate. It felt…like a goodbye kiss.

Symon ripped his mouth away, panting. No. He didn’t want to think about it like that, didn’t want to confront that right now. “Clothes,” he breathed, slipping his fingertips beneath the waistband of Colten’s leather trousers. “Off, get them off.”

Colten nodded understandingly, stood up and stripped off his thick leather breastplate, then got to work on his close-fitting cotton gambeson. Symon pulled off his court clothes, careful not to catch any loose threads on his jewelry. He set his heavy necklace aside as well—it was loaded with protective spells, but he didn’t need them with Colten—then slid back up the bed, grabbing for his jar of slick and coating his fingers, then slipping one inside his body.

Oh…it had been too long since he’d done this. It might have hurt, if his slick wasn’t also spelled to relax muscles and promote pleasure.

“Way to get started without me,” Colten complained from the foot of the bed, still working on his boots.

“You take too long.” Symon closed his eyes and began to pump his finger in and out of himself, letting it slip almost all the way out before pressing it back inside. He set another finger beside it, and then Colten was there, reaching out and gripping Symon’s wrist.

“Let me help.” He took control of Symon’s hand, thrusting with Symon’s own fingers at the pace he desired. It was slower than Symon would have gone, but still fast enough to make the fire in his veins surge. He watched his friend stare at him, enjoyed how he liked looking at Symon’s body, even the freckles and moles, even the terrible scar across the center of his chest, and wondered for a moment what his husband would think of him, when Symon finally had to bare himself to the man. He was so skinny after all, not broad and fit like Colten, not strong-featured and handsome like Darius. He had short brown hair and a snub nose, a too-wide mouth and too-big eyes. He looked younger than he was too, hardly the image of a powerful mage.

Just don’t think about it.

“Another finger,” Colten said after a few minutes, and Symon added a third. He was stretched wide enough to really feel it now, despite the slick, but there was still no pain. He closed his eyes, then opened them again quickly as Colten wrapped his warm, rough hand around Symon’s cock.

“Aahh—”

“There you are,” Colten said with a crooked smile. “Can’t hide from me.”

“You’re fucking me with my own hand, I don’t think—unghh—hiding from you is possible,” Symon said with a groan. “Please, I’m ready, let’s just—”

“I like seeing you like this. Watching you. There’s never been much time for this before.”

He was right about that. Their couplings had always been fast, if not really furtive—no one cared if they were lovers, although Darius would probably have joked about it until Symon’s temper reached a breaking point. They had just been busy, too busy to devote much of their time to pleasures of the flesh.

Symon regretted that, now.

“Please,” he said again. “Please, I want you.”

Colten met his eyes again, and his expression softened from avid to gentle. “Of course.” He dipped his own fingers into the pot and stroked himself with a pleasurable moan. As soon as he let go of Symon’s wrist, Symon pulled his fingers free and reached his clean hand out for Colten’s hip. Colten leaned in, lifted Symon’s hips up and pressed forward—

Oh, fuck.” They hadn’t done this for months, and Symon felt the lack. Colten sank in as far as he could go in one smooth slide, until they were pressed as close as they could get. Symon’s balls ached for release, and he didn’t dare touch himself—he’d come too quickly if he did. “Move,” he begged. “Go faster.”

Colten, his brown eyes darker than ever, mouth open but unable to speak, began to shift his hips back and forth. He started small but quickly picked up the pace, thanks to Symon’s urging with his arms around Colten’s shoulders and feet tapping against the back of his thighs. He felt comfortably full with Colten’s cock, every movement inside of him bringing a new surge of pleasure. “Yes, fuck, oh…”

“I love this.” Colten said it with an air of confession. “I do. I wish we could have this forever.”

Symon’s throat closed up. It was everything they knew they could never say to each other, everything that there was no room for in their relationship. He could wish it was otherwise—had wished it—but the road ahead was set, and it didn’t include anything more for them. He pulled Colten into a desperate kiss instead, hot and hungry, and it was the kiss more than the sudden press of Colten’s hard abdomen against Symon’s cock that made him come, groaning as he spilled between them, his ass clenching around Colten’s length.

Colten’s breath hitched, then stilled altogether against Symon’s mouth as he came too, his eyes fluttering shut with ecstasy. They stayed together, simply breathing the same air, for a long time before Colten finally pulled away and lay down beside Symon. He slung his arm across Symon’s belly, heedless of the mess, and said, “I don’t care what kind of scandal it causes, if it gets to be too much send a message to me. I’ll get you out of there if I have to fly in at night on a griffin and spirit you away.”

Symon smiled, then reached up to his left earlobe and detached the small silver hoop with the red bead. He handed it to Colten. “Stasis charm. Throw it hard at whatever you want to freeze and it’ll hold it for at least ten seconds, no matter how big or powerful.”

“That’s a strong piece of spellwork,” Colten commented, eyeing the bead admiringly. “It must have taken you weeks to make. Are you sure you want to give it away, Sy?”

“I think you’ll need it more than me.” He hoped he wouldn’t have cause to want to freeze someone in place where he was going. Maybe holding them in place long enough for him to escape…no, it didn’t bear thinking about. He didn’t want to think at all right now. “Do you have a little longer?”

“A little bit longer,” Colten said, and positioned himself so that Symon’s head was cushioned against his shoulder.

Symon closed his eyes and silently hoped that dawn would never come.

 

 


 

Chapter Five

 

The Riyalian escort arrived early that morning, just after breakfast. Not that Symon had eaten anything—he didn’t think he’d be able to keep it down, he was so full of nerves. But he did his best to hide them when he, accompanied by the rest of the royal family, went out to meet the group of eight men.

They stood in the center of the castle courtyard, all on horseback except for one, who had dismounted and handed his reins to another. They all wore the blue and purple tabards of the rulers of Riyale, supplemented with gold thread along the hem. That gold thread meant that these were all shifters as well, probably handpicked by Prince Petur himself to form Symon’s escort. He sighed. That meant they would report on every little thing he did between now and when he arrived in Riyale’s capital city of Delomar in five days.

They were an impressive group, he had to admit. Their mail coats gleamed under the tabards, their helms were fierce and animal-esque, covering the upper half of their faces, and each person was armed with both a recurve bow and arrows across their backs and a long, curving sword fastened at their hips.

The one who on foot bowed low as the royal party approached.

“Your Majesty,” he said in a clear but slightly weathered voice. A mature man, judging from the ashen bristles on his chin. “My name is Commander Silver. Thank you for your gracious admittance.”

Ha. Like she could do anything else.

“Thank you for coming so swiftly,” Melisse replied, everything about her resplendent with calm, from the perfect coif of her hair down to her genteelly folded hands. “We’re honored by the presence of Prince Petur’s own personal guard coming so far.”

“He would have it no other way,” the soldier assured her, then looked directly at Symon and inclined his head. “My prince,” he murmured. Symon’s throat went a bit dry at the seriousness of the address—this was it, this was really it, oh my gods—but he managed a nod.

“I invite you and your men to break your fast with us,” Melisse went on, though it was late enough that they’d likely eaten hours ago. Sure enough, Commander Silver shook his head.

“I beg your forgiveness, Your Majesty, but we’ve already eaten, and I’d prefer to get back on the road as quickly as possible. We have many miles to travel before nightfall if we’re to get the prince to our city in time for the Harvest Festival.”

Melisse frowned faintly, but accepted this. It was expected that they’d chivvy Symon out of here as quickly as possible so he could marry Petur on an appropriately auspicious day, but his stomach churned regardless.

“We’re prepared to load his luggage and depart immediately,” Commander Silver went on, then turned to address Symon directly. “Do you have a mount of your own, or would you care to use one of our spares? They’re big animals, but trained to respond well to riders of any level.”

Symon might have been insulted if he’d been the type to take it that way. Did they think he couldn’t ride a horse? Certainly, Bekkon was famed for its griffin cavalry garrison, but griffins were for elite troops. Everyday people like himself had to learn to harness and ride a mule, or in his case, a small but feisty gelding that Symon had grandiosely named Darkmane when he was fifteen, but usually just called Dax.

“I have a horse,” Symon said, forcing himself to project a bit more than he was comfortable with. “Thank you.”

“Excellent. In that case, your Highness, once we have your belongings secured in the carryall, we’ll be ready to depart.” He bowed, extending the long, brown fingers of his right hand over his heart, and the rest of his troop immediately followed suit. “We will await your pleasure outside the wall.” His voice softened slightly. “Our time is yours, my prince. Take what you need of it now—we will make up whatever we must later.”

After a moment he straightened and made a circling gesture with his hand. His people turned their horses around in unison and walked them back out through the castle’s encircling wall and beyond the front gate, where Symon could now see a slender carryall cart hooked up to a team of two horses.

Well, this was…fast. Symon’s heart was beating so fast he felt like a baby griffin who’d just fallen from its nest, desperately flapping its wings in an effort to stay aloft. He turned to face his family, and was immediately engulfed in his father’s embrace.

It took Symon a moment to realize that his father, his ever-strong father, was shaking against him. Symon wrapped his arms around Jon’s back and held on tight, squeezing him hard enough to still the worst of it.

“It’s all right,” Symon said. “It’s going to be all right. Don’t be sad.” He pulled back and tried on a smile. It faltered immediately in the face of his father’s tears, but he persisted. “After all, I’m getting married. It’s a happy occasion.”

“I should be there.” Behind Jon, Melisse blanched and looked down at the ground. “I can’t believe I’m letting you do this alone, with no family to stand up for you, I should be there.”

“It isn’t safe. You told me that, and I know you’re right.” Symon squeezed his father’s shoulders. “You just have to remember that you’re right too. And I’ll come back to visit you as soon as I can.”

“We’ll come to you first,” Mel promised, stepping up and holding out her own arms. Symon embraced her, not even tempted to punish her a bit more by refusing to say goodbye. She was his stepmother, she loved him, and although his hasty engagement was her doing, he had forgiven her for it already. He knew things were tense between the queen and her consort, and that wouldn’t do. They needed to be a team, especially during dangerous times like these.

“Take care of him,” he murmured in her ear.

“I will,” she replied. “Of course I will, but he will be happiest once he knows you’re well settled. Write to us, please.”

“I will.” They separated, but not before Mel reached down and pulled a ring Symon had never noticed before off her left thumb. It was broad, and made from what looked like three separate metals—gold, silver, and copper. She held it out to him.

“I had a dream about you last night. The details are blurry now, but I do recall you holding this ring in your hand, and when I woke up I knew I needed to give it to you. It’s unspelled,” she added, “but a good prospect for it, although getting them to stick will be a challenge, given the triple nature of the ring. It was my father’s.”

“Mother,” Darius protested, looking at the simple ring with a fresh greed. “If it’s an artifact of our family line, it ought to go to me.”

“You have plenty of your grandfather’s things,” Mel said firmly, still holding the ring out to Symon. “Please, take it.”

He nodded and lifted it off her palm with his fingertips. The metal was warm from her hand, and while there was no aura of power within it, he could sense the potential. What had the rest of her dream been about?

He looked at Darius, who looked back at him with a sour expression. “Enjoy it,” Darius said, his tone flat. “You’ll probably have lots of time to work on spells once you get to Delomar.”

Symon pasted a bright smile on his face. “Thank you. I certainly expect I’ll be of great use to my husband and his very important work. Have fun shooting arrows at crows and riding around chasing rabbits.”

He turned away before Darius could reply and watched as three pairs of servants appeared in the inner gate, each set holding onto one of his trunks. “I’d better go with them, make sure it’s all packed well,” he said, trying to give himself enough reason to actually move.

His father came to his rescue. “Come on, son,” he said, moving in to press a kiss to Symon’s forehead before clapping him on the back. “I’ll help.”

Having Jon by his side gave Symon the boost he needed to put one foot in front of the other. He and his father walked out to the front of the castle, and Symon immediately moved to rearrange the order of the trunks while his father stepped aside to have a low, fast conversation with Commander Silver. Symon was curious, but whatever their talk was about, it ended before he could listen in on it. The two men nodded to each other, one professional to another, before Commander Silver turned to Symon.

“Are you ready, your Highness?”

Symon almost wanted to say no, but…there was Dax, there were his trunks, he was in his sturdiest riding clothes and had said his goodbyes. It was time to go.

He didn’t embrace his father again—the knot that suddenly lodged in his throat was so tense with grief he knew that one more touch would cause it to snap, and he would not cry in front of his fiancĂ©’s personal guard. The mortification might kill him before an assassination attempt could. He simply nodded, and Jon nodded back. Then Symon turned and strode over to his horse, setting his foot in the stirrup and mounting smoothly.

He looked at Commander Silver, who had mounted at the same time. “I’m ready,” Symon said, just a bit hoarsely, and the commander nodded his acknowledgement.

“Keep pace with me, your Highness.” Two of the riders turned and moved into a trot out in front. Commander Silver followed, and Symon went with him.