Captain Rayn Nevar slapped his cup down on the intricately carved wooden table beside him, causing it to wobble. He’d had too much to drink, but that didn’t stop him from nodding at the serving boy who appeared with a fresh carafe of plum wine.
While the servant poured the wine, Minister Havran stalked the confines of her receiving room, white skirt swirling across the thick rugs. The rugs and rich tapestries did little to soften the edges of the white-marbled suite.
“I don’t care if he’s a hundred and three; Curator Janak should be whipped,” Havran declared once the boy retreated.
“You can’t blame the old man,” said Arn Gilder, Rayn’s second in command. Gilder was a mass of muscles and barely fit into the elegant palace furniture. His bulging chest and thick blond beard gave him the appearance of a barbarian, and the ill-fitting black uniform of tight leather didn’t help. “Skala shouldn’t hold up the royals as divine nobility. He protects them when he should execute them like he did their parents.”
“Too many fools still worship them,” Havran said. “Gon Skala is afraid of sparking another rebellion. He walks the dagger’s edge in order to take advantage of superstition while suppressing the cult of Ka’alar at the same time.” She dropped onto a velvet couch and glared at Rayn and Arn in turn. Instead of letting them return to their rooms after the endless dinner, she’d called them to her suite so she could vent and rage about the antics of her peers. “What about you, Nevar? You haven’t said a word since we left the great hall.”
Rayn swilled the expensive wine, hoping it might douse the flames of stupidity ignited by the sight of Prince Dezra. Instead of politely attending to his minster’s observations, Rayn had been reliving his attempts to reach the famed gardens of the inner courtyard. He’d heard many a tale about the fantastic garden Dezra’s grandmother and mother had created, and yet no one he met had ever actually seen it. Rayn took this as a personal challenge.
Visitors were housed in the massive central building of the sprawling palace, but their rooms faced the outer courtyard. Whenever Rayn wandered the maze of corridors toward the heart of the building, he’d met with surly guards who turned him back. Now that he’d seen the prince who haunted the forbidden gardens, Rayn was more intent than ever on finding his way to them.
“I agree the royals should not be paraded about like icons,” he said. “Send them to the summer palace and let them spend their lives out of sight. Alandra Jahar should not have a place on the council.”
“Ha!” Havran shrieked. She normally held her emotions in check, but it appeared she’d had too much wine as well. “Who’s more dangerous, the princess who pretends to be sensible or the prince who pretends to be useless?”
Rayn didn’t want to discuss the prince. He wanted to go to bed and relieve his misguided fantasies about Dezra with the help of an attractive sex worker.
From a distance across the hall, the prince had met Rayn’s expectations of a beautiful but pampered royal. Dezra’s supple grace had stirred Rayn’s base passions. Observing the prince provided more entertainment than listening to the speeches, but a persistent erection wasn’t enough to overcome Rayn’s natural aversion to undeserving elites and sorcery, both of which were wrapped up in the person of Prince Dezra.
Despite this, Rayn hadn’t been able stop staring at the prince. Prince Dezra sat motionless most of the evening and appeared to drift in a dreamlike state. Rayn had heard he was addicted to harrar and spent his life in a luxurious fog. In his trance, Dezra’s long black lashes brushed his high cheekbones, and his wide lips curled into an amused half smile. Rayn had seen the expression on the face of many an idle courtier.
Then Rayn’s training as a scout took over, and he soon decided the prince wasn’t dozing at all but intently listening to every word. His body had the tautness of a grazing deer aware of panthers lurking at the edges of his idyll meadow. So, the prince was a schemer like his parents. This didn’t surprise Rayn in the least.
“The fact that they’re both pretending is a clear indicator Skala is raising two vipers in his nest,” Gilder said.
“That’s what I think,” Havran replied. She leaned forward as if about to reveal some confidence, then changed her mind and settled against the curved back of the couch. “Prince Dezra is heir to the throne of Armazin. Therefore he is our enemy. Yours in particular, Captain Nevar.”
“The throne no longer exists. The royalist rebellion is defeated.”
“Doesn’t it bother you that the great-grandson of Reva Luzan, the mage who destroyed your family, sits beside Grand Premier Skala, sipping wine and plotting his return to Armazin?”
Gilder snorted. “The prince isn’t plotting anything except which serving boy to take to bed next.”
“Reva Luzan was mad,” Rayn said. “Until I learn of some reason to fear the royals, I won’t let ancient history cloud my judgment of what’s happening today.”
“How very cultured of you.” Havran sniffed and lifted her cup but didn’t drink. “As a member of the council of Armazin, I can’t afford to be so forgiving.”
Rayn shifted uncomfortably. The furniture didn’t suit him any better than it did Gilder, nor did the conversation. The delicate trappings of the palace made Rayn feel like an ox in a pottery shop, and discussions of political intrigue reminded him he was a soldier first, a diplomat far second.
Rayn had grown up respectable but poor. He’d studied, fought, trained, and sacrificed his youth to the army in order to rise through the ranks and at last regain some small bit of prestige for his family. Reva Luzan had ruined the noble house of Nevar nearly a century earlier, along with all the other families who defied her reign of terror. Once-great lineages had dissolved into mist, but the line of Nevar held on, never giving up their claim to Armazin soil.
In an ironic twist, Rayn’s last promotion had taken him out of the field and placed him in the unnatural position of hanging around courts and palaces in attendance to Minister Havran. He couldn’t complain. His father had wept when he learned his son had been gifted with a tiny scrap of land in Namtar. A mere fraction of their former estate, but at least it was land. The family could rebuild from there.
“So you think the prince is harmless? A mere pretty bauble for Skala to wear about his neck?” Havran persisted.
“Harmless as long as he’s kept well away from the cultists of Ka’alar and those few madmen who think we need a mage to return Armazin to greatness.” Rayn drained his cup and blinked to keep his vision from blurring. The last thing he intended was to defend Dezra against Havran’s rancor, but an odd and entirely unexpected urge to protect the prince muddled his thinking.
Determined to turn the conversation to safer ground, Rayn asked, “But what do you think of Tovias and his continued incursions across the Rakkan border?”
Havran seized on one of her favorite topics with drunken glee and launched into a litany of Tovias’s failures as a leader. Rayn nodded at appropriate times and tortured himself by recalling his encounter with Dezra, if one could call it that. A look. A stare. A sort of understanding, if Rayn deluded himself enough to believe the prince had actually shown an interest in him and wasn’t simply bored out of his mind.
Rayn signaled for more wine and allowed memories of the evening to unfold as Havran raged on. By the time the Armazin party had approached the dais, he’d been eager to inspect the prince a little closer and had no intention of keeping his gaze respectfully averted. He refused to be cowed as so many in the grand hall obviously were.
Casually reclining in a massive wooden chair, Dezra’s slim body was tightly encased in severe formal attire. His elegant fingers stroked the curved arms of the chair, revealing tension beneath the studied indifference.
Rayn’s pesky imagination quickly had him leading Dezra away from his throne, peeling off the clothing, and teaching His Divinity a thing or two about how soldiers fuck. As Rayn’s mind filled with images of the long fingers stroking his growing erection and those full lips encircling his cock, Rayn had a difficult time paying attention to his minister’s speech.
Then Prince Dezra had shifted his gaze and stared directly at Rayn. Power radiated out of the supposedly relaxed prince. If they’d been at a normal court dinner and Dezra were not a forbidden state treasure, Rayn would have leaped to his side and aggressively wooed him until the delectable blond gave in to his demands.
History was forgotten for a moment as the desire to grab the man and ravage him on the spot demolished Rayn’s common sense. He’d been very glad his thick leather pants held his cock rigidly in place, for it would have tented a silk robe in a most awkward fashion.
He’d managed to keep his expression impassive, his stance relaxed, and his gaze steady. Still it had been a relief when Dezra looked away. Rayn’s mind started to work again, and he’d wondered if some vestige of Dezra’s mage blood remained locked inside that delicious body. Could an ordinary man have a fighting chance to enter the bed of such a creature and not be reduced to a jibbering slave? Wariness tempered Rayn’s lust.
Finally Havran had finished her speech, and the Armazins retreated to their table. The prince’s golden stare burned into Rayn’s back the entire way. Rayn wanted to flee the man and all he represented. He also wanted to hunt Dezra down and fuck him like he’d never been fucked before. Merely touching the prince could get him killed. Everything about Dezra screamed danger, but Rayn’s body didn’t care.
Gilder’s slightly slurred words interrupted Rayn’s exquisite self-torment.
“I’ve heard Rakkan has mage problems of their own,” the man said and belched loudly, then blushed. Havran didn’t notice his rudeness.
“My spies inform me General Charvat was murdered at a temple near Karsa. How great a soldier could he have been if he was bested by a gaggle of monks?”
“And if the monks were summoning Ka’alar?” Gilder persisted.
“Rubbish!” Havran sneered, but her face clouded with worry. “Reva Luzan was the last true mage. The king of Rakkan will stamp out any whiff of magic the moment it arises.”
“Even if it helped rid him of his most powerful enemy?” Rayn asked. “We see how Skala toys with the trappings of magic, keeping Dezra and Alandra by his side. No one is above the lure of such power.”
Havran leveled her gaze at him. “Even a sensible soldier like yourself?”
“Sorcery is the stuff of kings. It would only destroy a simple man like me.”
Havran arched an eyebrow. “Keep that in mind, Captain Nevar. Don’t think I didn’t notice the prince inspecting you like a cat stalking a mouse.”
Rayn’s cheeks heated. Everyone in the room had probably noticed. It was a gathering of people whose political survival depended on noticing.
“Don’t worry. There’s no chance I’ll ever meet the prince, much less be tempted by his charms.” Rayn renewed his determination to squash all thoughts of seeing Dezra again. Although he felt no need to blame Dezra for what his great-grandmother did, it would certainly be best for Rayn’s future to leave the prince alone in his gilded cage.
A cage I would very much like the key to.
Rayn shook his head. Henceforth, Prince Dezra would be a recurring character in his nocturnal fantasies, no more.
“Leave me,” Havran commanded and snapped for her serving girl. “I’ll work on correspondence in the morning. Do not come to me until midday.”
Rayn and Gilder rose unsteadily, bowed, and departed.
“Sleeping it off, more like.” Gilder chuckled once they were clomping down the marble corridor.
“Sleep sounds like a marvelous idea,” Rayn said. He shared a knowing look with Gilder, and they both laughed as they headed, not for their rooms, but for the lounge where the most beautiful and expensive sex workers in Jahar plied their trade.