“Your Highness? It’s time.”
Prince Liam put down his book and nodded at the sailor in the doorway. He’d have to be completely deaf, and a total idiot to boot, to not notice the ship was approaching port. Sailors had been calling down the gangway all morning and pounding over the roof of his cabin. Still, he had to keep up appearances. And perhaps one of those appearances was being a total idiot.
“Thank you,” he said, coming to his feet.
Liam ducked his head to follow the sailor out of his cabin and up the steep, narrow staircase to the main deck. After nearly two weeks at sea, he could actually smell land—the tang of pine resin, smoke from the city of Cyon. His city.
Liam knew it was an inconvenience for him to be above-board at this time; docking was a delicate procedure. But still. He had to know. His breath caught in his throat as his eyes adjusted to the glare off the ocean, slowly bringing Cyon’s harbor into focus. A line of knights on the dock waited for him, their white pennants waving in the offshore breeze. He squinted, but it was impossible to recognize anyone from this distance.
Five years. It’s been five years.
When he left Cyon, he’d been fifteen. A boy, scarcely more than a child, fighting tears as he said good-bye to everything he’d ever known and stepped on the ship bound for the Academy of Alexria.
He didn’t come to see me off, Liam remembered. It still hurt, even after five long years. They’d grown up together, crown prince Liam and Cerdec, son of the First Knight. They’d been inseparable, playing together, training together, getting into trouble and trying to escape the punishment together. And the last time I saw him, we fought. Liam bit back a sigh.
“Your Highness,” Captain Roberts said, joining Liam on the railings. “I trust the voyage was to your liking?”
Liam nodded silently.
“Ah, she’s a beautiful city,” the captain said.
“Thank you, Captain.” Liam allowed himself a small smile. As though I’ve done anything to make the city beautiful. All I’ve ever done is cower in my father’s shadow. And leave.
“And it’s been a lovely voyage,” Liam said. I’ll give you credit for the weather, just as you gave me credit for the city.
Captain Roberts grinned, more than willing to accept the credit. “Of course, of course. It’s been an absolute pleasure having you on board. We’re more than happy to accommodate you again.”
Oh, I’m sure, thought Liam. He’d noticed the sailors grumbling as he was given the best food, the first pick of their wretched rotgut wine. And he was sure the captain had been positively thrilled to give up his own quarters to the spoiled blueblood from the Academy.
“I’ll give my father a most favorable report,” Liam said, extending his hand. “And there’s no one else we’d consider for our future transportation needs.”
Captain Roberts gave Liam a wide smile as he kissed his hand. Then, lies and formalities completed, he stepped away to supervise the docking. Liam leaned forward, shielding his eyes to scan the shore. His hands clenched he polished wood of the railing, his knuckles turning white. The ship was still too far to be certain, but Cerdec had been massive five years ago, when he was only sixteen. By now his curly blond hair would stand a full head above the other knights.
If he were there.
Liam was horrified to feel the hot prick of tears behind his eyelids. He spun away from the railing and almost smacked a sailor scurrying across the deck.
The sailor’s face dropped and he paled. “Your Highness!” He bent low, almost scraping the deck. “My apologies!”
“Oh, stop it,” Liam snapped. “I ran into you.”
The sailor stood frozen in place as Liam walked around him, heading below deck. He suddenly did not want to see any more of Cyon.
He didn’t have much to pack, but Liam busied himself with his suitcase, rearranging his books and folding his tunics with painstaking care as the ship creaked and shuddered through the harbor.
Not a single one of his father’s letters to the Academy mentioned Cerdec. After the first year passed, Liam grew too terrified to ask about him. It wasn’t unheard of for knights-in-training to leave the kingdom as hostages or tokens in a peace treaty. Or even to seek their fortune elsewhere, to swear fealty to some other sovereign.
And sometimes there were accidents.
Liam squeezed his eyes shut, bringing the palms of his hands to his eyes. I am to be king. My citizens will not see me cry.
Liam turned to the door. It was the same sailor who fetched him earlier, a mere slip of a boy, barely older than Liam had been when he first left Cyon.
“The ship is secured. They’re, uh, ready for you. Your Highness.”
Liam cleared his throat. “Thank you.”
The sailor ducked out of the way and Liam followed, pulling his shoulders back, raising himself to his full height. He forced his face into a pleasant, unapproachable smile. And he prepared to meet his subjects.
Liam’s first thought was that nothing had changed. Even the damn horse looked familiar, his hooves clattering nervously along the splintering wood of the docks. He’d left this city a boy. He’d returned an educated man, a future sovereign, and the city hadn’t changed an iota.
The townspeople had strung flowers around the posts and over the walkways. Pretty, although they did nothing to combat the stench of fish guts and tar hovering over the harbor. They waved and cheered from the windows; Liam smiled at them all, raising his hand and nodding as he walked down the gangplank, his heart a vast, aching emptiness in his chest.
Cerdec’s father Zander waited for him. The white in his hair was more noticeable now, and his shoulders were perhaps slightly more bent. Still, he looked so much like Cerdec that Liam’s stomach curled in on itself. The one person I wanted to see is absent, and instead, I get this ghost. The reflection of Cerdec in the face of his father.
Zander bowed low and brought his fist to his forehead. “Your Highness. Welcome home.”
“Thank you, First Knight Zander. It’s good be home,” Liam lied.
They brought horses, and Liam mounted first, his motions smooth and practiced. His blood bay danced beneath him as if ready to race away from the city streets. You and me both, friend, thought Liam with a wry smile.
The pain in his chest grew more acute as they trotted through the city, banners streaming behind the knights. Every curve in the street, every hidden alleyway, every glimpse of the hills beyond the walls reminded Liam of Cerdec. When they crested the rise of the First District, Liam had to struggle to catch his breath, and he wondered if he may actually be dying.
Beyond those hills, he thought, is the meadow. Our meadow.
He’d last seen Cerdec during one of the golden days of early autumn when the afternoons were warm but the nights held a hint of the cold to come. It was his last morning in Cyon; they’d ridden out of the city together, quarreling the entire way, and the lunch they shared in the meadow had done little to improve their moods.
“I don’t even want to go,” Liam snapped, irritated with Cerdec. Cerdec had been moody and irrational for weeks now, and Liam was reaching the limits of his patience.
Cerdec snorted. “Oh, I’m sure you put up a huge fight about it. Oh no,” he said, making his voice an irritating falsetto, “please don’t send me off to the Academy. I don’t want to learn all the forbidden secrets and visit all the whorehouses and—”
Liam’s body slammed into Cerdec’s, cutting him off mid-sentence. “Stop it!” Liam said, forcing Cerdec’s shoulders to the ground. “I said I don’t want to go!”
Cerdec’s legs wrapped around Liam’s, his hips throwing Liam off balance. “Oh, now you think you’re a better wrestler than me, great prince?”
“No, that’s not—I’m not better,” Liam gasped, struggling as Cerdec threw the full weight of his muscular body against Liam. Cerdec had always been bigger and more athletic, but Liam fought with grim determination, and they were usually evenly matched.
They rolled together in the dry grass, cicadas calling around them, the offshore breeze gusting through their hair and pressing their tunics tight against their bodies. Cerdec’s smell filled the air, his salty, masculine tang, and Liam was momentarily distracted, his grip around Cerdec’s shoulders loosening. Cerdec braced his feet against the ground and thrust his hips, rolling his body over Liam’s. In a heartbeat, Liam was pinned beneath him, his arms stretched over his head, Cerdec’s hands wrapped around his wrists.
“You think you’re better than me,” Cerdec growled, his voice low and thick.
“No,” Liam said, struggling under Cerdec’s strong body. “No, I—” Liam gasped as Cerdec shifted above him. Cerdec had an erection; Liam could feel the hard heat pressing against his stomach. His own cock surged, his body responding so quickly he felt dizzy.
“I’m not better than you,” Liam whispered. Cerdec leaned down to catch the words, his long, blond hair falling against Liam’s cheek. “I don’t want to be better than you. I just want—”
Liam’s voice failed. Their chests pressed together, Cerdec’s cock throbbing against his stomach, their mouths so close they were almost touching. If Liam just tilted his head, their lips would join.
A horn sounded from the city below, and Cerdec sprang away from him, blood coloring his cheeks despite his deep tan. Liam staggered to his feet and ran after him. By the time Liam caught him, Cerdec was struggling with the hobbles wrapped around their horses’ hooves.
“Cerdec,” Liam wrapped his hand around Cerdec’s shoulder.
Cerdec turned to him and Liam stepped back, shocked. Cerdec was crying. “They’re calling you,” Cerdec said. “The horn. It means the ship’s come in.”
“I know what it means!”
“Then go!” Cerdec snapped.
Liam backed away, his hands shaking. The horn called again. Cerdec handed Liam the reins of his horse, his eyes rimmed with red. “Go,” Cerdec said. “Go!”
Liam went, mounting his horse and cantering across the field. He did not look back.
In the years to come, he would regret not looking back almost as much as he regretted not tilting his head, not meeting Cerdec’s lips in the tall grass of early autumn.
Liam shook his head and shifted his weight in the saddle, turning away from the hills above the First District and back to Zander. “My apologies,” he said. He was appalled by the waver in his own voice. “I haven’t seen Cyon in years. It’s a bit…emotional.”
The hard lines of Zander’s face allowed a small smile. “Of course, Your Highness. Take all the time you like. Your father is in no hurry.”
Your father. The words moved through Liam’s body like ice, shoving memories of Cerdec aside. “How is my father?”
Zander’s forehead creased. “Alive.”
“And your son?”
Zander chuckled. “Ah yes, you remember Cerdec. You two were thick as thieves, not so long ago. He’s—Well, you’ll see for yourself, I suppose.”
Liam’s shoulders relaxed for the first time in days as he let go of the worst fear that had haunted his last five years. He must be alive. Cerdec is alive.
And then they stood before the broad, high oaken doors of the castle, and Liam’s breath caught in his throat. He felt strangely cold, as if he were a child again, called before his terrifying king-father. Liam bit the inside of his lip and pressed his calves into the blood bay, urging his mount forward.
“I am no longer a child,” he whispered, his horses’ hooves clattering over the small drawbridge.
The inner courtyard was filled with people, and a huge cheer greeted his arrival. Liam smiled and waved, recognizing most faces, noting the absence of only a few. His father’s physician Tlar had informed him about most of the deaths, births, and betrayals during the past five years. Still, it was a bit of a shock to see the courtyard without the gnarled, bald pate of his old trainer Syd.
He swung his leg over the bay and dismounted onto the straw-strewn cobblestones, handing the reins to an unfamiliar stable boy who gave him a look that edged disturbingly close to admiration. The courtyard echoed with the squealing creak of old hinges, and Liam’s stomach clenched. Conversation ceased as everyone turned to the castle, awaiting their king.
Tlar had done his best to keep Liam informed about the king’s status. But nothing could have truly prepared him for the first site of his father as the great doors swung open. By the gods, thought Liam, struggling to keep his expression neutral.
His father had shrunk at least three inches, and his remaining hair had gone completely white. The left side of his body seemed shriveled; even the left side of his face hung slack. His left arm was wrapped around a young woman dressed in an absurdly provocative outfit; one of the king’s courtesans, Liam assumed. His right hand clutched a cane. He seemed to pull his shriveled, damaged body into the sunlight through sheer force of will.
“My son returns,” the king said. His voice boomed across the courtyard as it always had, although Liam noticed the words were now slightly slurred. “Come here, boy. Let’s see what all that gold I sent to the Academy has bought!”
Liam pressed his lips together. That was, he had to admit, a brilliant way to debase all the accomplishments he’d made in the last five years. Still, this was his father. The king. And disrespecting his father would undermine the basis for his own authority.
The crowd moved soundlessly as Liam walked toward the stairs, and many of the men and women brought their fist to their forehead. Liam climbed the staircase alone, his steps echoing across the courtyard. At the top he met his father’s eyes for a heartbeat; he was nearly a foot taller, now, and this close he could see the trail of spittle running down the left side of the king’s face.
“Your Highness,” Liam said, bowing very low at his father’s feet.
His father’s laugh filled the courtyard. “You’re too damn skinny, boy. You look weak!” The king hit Liam’s arm with his staff. It hurt, but Liam did not flinch.
“The prince has returned!” the king called, raising the staff in his right hand. “Your prince has returned!”
The courtyard filled once again with cheers and smiles. Liam forced himself to smile benignly at his subjects. Give them what they want, Liam thought. Always give them what they want.
“Enough of this useless pageantry,” the king grumbled. “Get me inside, whore.”
The courtesan pressed her body against the king’s, supporting him as he pulled himself away from the open door and into the darkened hall. Liam suppressed the urge to help his father, suspecting his advances would not be welcomed.
“I’ve got a surprise for you, son,” the king wheezed as the doors closed behind them. “My son who is so—” he stopped, gasping for breath, and then resumed his torturous walk through the hall, “so interested in the knights.”
Liam nodded his head, his face betraying nothing.
“Just in…here,” gasped his father. Liam followed silently, careful to not walk faster than the king.
The banquet hall was decorated with more jubilation than Liam could remember. Flowers spilled from every surface, and the linen tablecloth was exquisitely embroidered. Fine beeswax candles blazed on the dais set before the two thrones at the end of the banquet table. Liam’s was, of course, smaller and lower than his father’s. Still, it was a throne.
The courtesan helped the king into his throne and tied a napkin around his neck, wiping the spittle from his face automatically. Then she stepped back, her hands crossed at her waist, her pretty face empty. His father coughed for a long time, then waved his right hand at the door. A well-dressed servant approached.
“Bellvue?” Liam asked, and the man’s face lit with a smile.
“Your Highness,” he said, obviously pleased to be recognized. “It is a pleasure to welcome you home.”
The king snorted. “Yes, yes, enough of all that. Bring them in, servant.”
Bellvue’s features stiffened, his face becoming a mask of formality. “Of course, Your Highness.”
The door opened a minute later, and the king chuckled. “Your letters were so damn concerned with the knights-in-training. I thought you’d like to see them yourself. The five new knights of Cyon. Sworn to me.”
Liam’s heart stopped as footsteps filled the banquet hall.
Cerdec was first in line.
* * * * *
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