How did one man possess that many muscles?
As the cleric expounded from the stone temple’s center dais under a cloudless sky, Jem’s gaze returned time and again to the wild strangers across the square courtyard. He’d never attended a spring summit, though he’d heard breathless tales two years before of the Northern barbarians who’d suddenly reappeared at the annual gathering.
As a boy, Jem had never quite believed the far-flung kingdom of Ergh actually existed. It was the stuff of legend, a cautionary tale—anger the gods at your peril.
The gods of wind, water, fire, and earth had conspired to sever Ergh from the mainland and banish it north for…something or other. Jem couldn’t recall the exact nature of the offense offhand, but it was to do with one of the wars that had once plagued Onan.
Yes, the clerics had sailed across the forbidding Askorn Sea on occasion in attempts to lure Ergh back into the fold and restore balance to the world and whatnot, but that was all rather theoretical. Ergh had remained a fiction to Jem, even once his brothers returned from the spring summit with sneering reports of the barbarians who’d attended for the first time in centuries.
Yet here they sat! Almost two dozen people of Ergh in the very impressive flesh, right before Jem’s eyes. They spoke the common language of Onan, although their accent was harsher. The language was proof they’d once indeed been part of the realm in ages past.
They were led not by a queen or king or royal as they had been before Ergh was banished north, but by a chieftain—a title that Jem assumed applied to people of all genders. The current chieftain, Kenver, had apparently been in power for some time. He seemed to be a humorless man.
The delegates came in various descriptions, much like the people of Jem’s home, Neuvella, and Gwels to the east and Ebrenn to the west. Skin from pale to dark, hair from silver to black, bodies lean to wide.
Yet they were unlike anyone Jem had ever seen. Although their number was fewer than the other delegations by half, the Northerners somehow seemed to fill their side of the temple to the breaking point. Instead of wearing silks, they were clad in animal skins all over, some with fur still attached despite the afternoon’s heat.
Their legs were spread wide where they sat, their boots thick and heavy rather than smooth and sculpted. They had no weapons Jem could spot, but he imagined even the smallest person from Ergh could break his neck with a brutal snap. Let alone the larger delegates who very strongly resembled the murderous mountain warriors who kidnapped the heroine in Jem’s favorite book.
Lowering his head as if deep in contemplation, he stared through his eyelashes at the chieftain’s second son. Fur accents on coarse material sat atop wide shoulders, his muscled arms bare and a black leather vest covering his chest—barely—the same leather straining over thighs that were like tree trunks. This son looked around thirty years and had the same straw-colored hair and pale skin as his father and older brother.
The chieftain’s daughter had dark skin and hair, cropped short like her brothers. Some delegates had longer hair that hung wild, not twisted and neatly sculpted like Jem was used to seeing. The chieftain’s hair met his broad shoulders. Instead of a crown of jewels, he wore a headpiece of two curving white tusks.
From a distance, it appeared the second son’s square jaw hadn’t seen a razor for days. Did he smell as fierce and wild as he looked? Jem imagined musky sweat and dirt and ice. Did ice have a smell? If it did, the second son surely reeked of it. If Jem were pinned helpless beneath him, it would fill his senses…
He repressed a shudder of desire, fiddling with the silk collar of his green shirt. Where he sat, almost at the end of the front row on the southern side of the temple, he could examine the man while appearing to pay heed to the chief cleric’s sermon, her hoarse voice echoing as she spoke passionately on something he was surely supposed to find profound. At least Jem was in no danger of falling asleep in boredom—not with all those leather-clad muscles to ogle.
Still, he shouldn’t be eyeing the son of the Ergh chieftain at all. Hadn’t he learned his lesson? If his brothers noticed, humiliation would undoubtedly follow. Jem shifted his gaze to the eastern side of the temple and the ruling family in the front row led by two queens, one his cousin.
There. They had a son who wasn’t too tall or broad and apparently enjoyed sums and formulas, if Jem recalled correctly. He was much more appropriate for a mate. Much less likely to break out into roars of laughter if Jem approached with a bold invitation for later.
Not that he would. He almost snorted aloud at the notion, coughing to cover the aborted sound. Since becoming a man, he’d issued precisely one invitation to bed him and there would not be another.
On cue, the remembered humiliation of a feast a few years ago bloomed to life, sticky and cloying even as it cut deeply. Would Jem be ancient like the stooped and wrinkled cleric and still experience the shame and horror of that rejection as though it was yesterday?
It was his own doing. He should have known it was a trick. His two older brothers had always enjoyed tormenting him, but when they confided that a visiting soldier had expressed desire for him, Jem had been all too pathetically eager to believe it.
He’d been mad to consider even for a fleeting moment that a man of the soldier’s bravery and strength would want him. No. Jem was too small, too weak, too quiet, too odd. He’d be lucky if any man would agree to take him for a spouse. He was a prince, so someone eventually would for political gain if nothing else, but Jem wouldn’t be the one to make a proposal.
He squirmed on the stone chair. Even once the soldier had realized Jem wasn’t jesting with his invitation, he hadn’t been able to curtail his laughter at the absurdity of it all. At the absurdity of Jem himself, apparently. The man had then schooled himself and attempted a kinder refusal, but Jem had run into the night, wishing more than ever he could unfurl wings and fly into the endless sky.
The soldier had been one of the royal guard regiment from Gwels. One soldier each from the royal guards of Neuvella, Ebrenn, and Gwels now stood sentinel at the sole entrance and exit to the temple under a white marble arch. They wore shiny bronze helmets, and the soldier from Gwels this time was mercifully a woman.
Since arriving at the Holy Place the previous day, Jem had held his breath each time he spotted a royal guard from Gwels. He might curl up and die with humiliation if he actually encountered the man who’d rejected him. The sooner he could safely escape home to his peaceful days with his birds by the lake and cozy nights with fanciful tales in the pages of his books, the better.
He wondered again if the tiny dillywig hatchlings had survived. They had only been beige, bald, sightless little lumps, their yellow beaks open in soundless protest at leaving the safety of the eggs that had been cracked too early. One of the groundskeepers had sworn to look after them in Jem’s absence, and Jem hated not knowing the tiny creatures’ fate.
He turned his head enough to peer at the tense Western delegates from Ebrenn. King Perran was a nasty piece of work. His back was straight and he kept his expression neutral during the sermon, but Jem imagined the cruel thoughts slithering through the king’s head. His pale face was wrinkled and hair gray, but he was strong yet. His jeweled crown was so enormous Jem wondered how he could sit up with it atop his head.
His wife had died some years before after falling suddenly ill. There were still whispers that she’d been miserable married to the old man and her death had been murder. Others said it was by her own hand in her grief for her daughter, who’d been ill herself and had only lived a decade.
At the king’s right hand sat his remaining child. Prince Treeve of Ebrenn had certainly grown up in the years since Jem had seen him. His shoulders were broad—though not as wide as the barbarian’s—his skin and hair tawny, legs long in tight breeches and tall boots.
His glittering crown was less ornate than his father’s, but the emeralds seemed to make his brown eyes sparkle with hidden depths. It was only Ebrenn’s tradition that the children of royal leaders wore crowns as well, and Jem was relieved he didn’t have to parade around in one. The emeralds suited Treeve, though. His teeth were white and straight, lips full—
And lifting into a smile as he noticed Jem’s surreptitious stare! Jem barely resisted squeaking as he whipped his head too far to the right, garnering attention from the Eastern delegates. Cursing himself, he stared at the cleric on the pedestal, breathing shallowly. The last thing he needed was Prince Treeve mocking him. Jem got enough of that from his brothers.
Besides, for as long as Jem could remember, he’d been told Ebrenn was not to be trusted, and that the king in particular was treasonous and greedy. While much nicer to look at, his son was likely just as horrible. The king had boldly encroached on the border with Neuvella for far too long, one stretch of it through a disputed valley.
The anger of Jem’s mother toward Ebrenn had deepened so much recently it worried him. Jem typically ignored all things royal and political, but he felt that if not for the presence of the clerics, Mother and Ebrenn’s king might come to blows.
As it was, they gave each other painfully civil nods and smiles so brittle the slightest offence would surely shatter the peace. The threat of war had never been so real, even as they sat in the temple for a sermon on unity. Was land really worth it? Couldn’t they share the valley in question?
His brothers would scoff and call him naïve, no doubt. This was just one of the reasons Jem preferred to stay home with his books and hatchlings. He dreaded getting involved in politics, never mind war.
Shifting, he tried to hide his wince at the numbness in his backside. He knew this sacred site, resting like a crown atop the mainland of Onan, was unchanged from the earliest records. He knew it was the holiest of land—chosen by the gods themselves, the clerics often reminded them. He knew he should be reverent and still and dutiful as he listened to the cleric’s boundless wisdom.
But surely a few cushions wouldn’t go amiss?
He gazed over at the Ergh delegates once more. Even the chieftain’s daughter was a head taller than Jem and far more muscled. Many of the group looked as if they spent their days hunting wild boar on horseback with deadly spears, which was entirely possible since boar was apparently Ergh’s main industry.
Legend had it when the gods had banished Ergh across the Askorn Sea, the mythical tusked boars had been trapped there. Indeed, they’d only enjoyed smoked boar again on the mainland since Ergh’s return, and Ergh traded it only at a premium. Jem supposed slaying wild boar wasn’t an easy task.
The chieftain’s children certainly looked suited to wielding a spear. The eldest son was scarred and scowling and frankly terrifying. But the younger had a beguiling handsomeness to accompany his might. What did his full lips look like lifted in a smile? Was his laugh warm and low? Did Erghians laugh? It was wonderfully strange to actually behold them in the flesh. Flesh that was—
An icy blue glare met Jem’s curious gaze, and he bit back a gasp as he whipped his head down. That the man he’d been ogling had looked straight at him was akin to a hero from the pages of one of his books suddenly appearing before him in his chamber.
Jem must not gawk at the Northerners as though they were exotic beasts captured from the mountains of Ebrenn. He reluctantly lifted his head and looked everywhere else but across the courtyard.
Ancient stones rose up around the temple, carved to represent the four gods of earth, wind, fire, and water. Birds chirped, their twitters and cries making Jem miss the ravens’ long caws and the trills of the dillywigs high in the branches near the lake’s edge.
Would the hatchlings be too cold or hungry without him there to care for them? Jem would spend hours in his aviary whenever injured or orphaned birds needed him, sometimes through the night. All he could do was hope for the best, but he wished he’d never had to leave.
Mother had always permitted him to stay home rather than attend boring summits, much to his siblings’ annoyance. Even Santo had complained that Jem was spoiled, that Mother was too free with him, and that he should have official duties as a prince. Jem was a man now, so he grudgingly admitted it was beyond time he fulfilled his obligation to Neuvella. Still, he missed home and would be happy to never leave it again.
If he closed his eyes to the waning day, Jem could imagine golden light turning orange and pink behind green boughs across his lake, crickets tuning up for their evening concert in the long grasses. He could almost smell the perfume of summer roses.
He snapped his eyes open, the thin soles of his knee-high boots sliding on the stone floor as he shifted. As a prince of Neuvella, if he couldn’t appear rapt with the proceedings, he at least had to look awake. He smoothed a palm over the soft fabric of his breeches, then picked at a loose thread by his knee. He wrapped it around the tip of his finger, making light circles on his golden-brown skin.
As he realized the cleric’s pontificating had in fact come to a close, a strange, fraught silence settled in. Gooseflesh rippled over him, sudden energy crackling in the temple. Had the thrilling outsiders of Ergh caused a scene? Jem glanced up eagerly—and his heart jolted with sudden dread.
Everyone was looking right at him.
Jem snapped his spine straight and pulled back his shoulders, hearing his father’s constant refrain to stand tall instead of always hunching over books or hatchlings. Delegates from all sides stared at him slack-jawed, and his mouth went dry as dirt.
Had he spoken of his boredom with the sermon aloud? Had he insulted the clerics? The gods? Somehow betrayed his lustful fantasies of the Northern son pinning him down in a wild frenzy of passion?
No one so much as whispered, and Jem didn’t dare breathe.
Oh gods, what had he done? His heart thumped so powerfully he was certain every soul in the temple could hear it in the stunned silence. His skin prickled hotly. He had no choice but to speak since an invisible vise apparently gripped the tongues of all present.
He glanced at his beloved sibling Santo next to him. Santo’s mouth turned down, sympathy in their kind brown eyes. Yet they remained mute.
To the courtyard at large, Jem asked, “Pardon?”
Of all people, it was the second son of the North who broke the silence. He growled with clear disgust. “Are you mad?” he barked at his father. “Marry? Him?” Then he somehow turned his withering, sneering gaze directly on Jem. “This…” His lip curled, and he motioned at Jem. “This…”
“Cador,” his sister warned, eyebrows high.
“This boy?” Cador spat the word like the bitterest poison.
“I’m a man!” Jem exclaimed, hands fisting. The sputtered response came reflexively after years of his brothers’ teasing about his stature. His voice rose too high in indignation, and almost everyone burst into laughter, breaking the spell of shock.
Wait, what was that part about marriage?
Jem must’ve misunderstood. He had to have misunderstood. He was certainly not marrying anyone for the foreseeable future, let alone this barbarian! Especially not this barbarian who sneered at him in horrified abhorrence. Beside Santo, their brothers Pasco and Locryn seemed shocked. Locryn struggled to stifle giggles.
Santo shook their head. “Oh, Jem. I’m sorry.”
“What’s happening?” Jem’s pulse thundered in his ears and he could barely hear his own question.
The ancient cleric’s thready voice positively boomed now. “Cador of Ergh and Prince Jowan of Neuvella shall be wed. Ergh’s chieftain and Neuvella’s queen have welcomed this historic partnership that will symbolize their renewed fellowship and the unity of Onan. We shall all be one.”
Jem so rarely thought of himself as Prince Jowan that for a mad moment, he hoped the cleric spoke of another. His parents stared straight ahead, and Jem had to lean forward on the horrible stone chair to glimpse their faces beyond Santo and their brothers, who had stopped laughing, at least. “Mother, Father!” There was a din of chatter now.
Mother! Jem wanted to scream. How could she of all people do this to him?
Father said nothing as usual—he didn’t make the decisions and never argued with Mother. Face composed, Mother beheld him with her dark gaze, her eyes beaming with unspoken sympathy. “It is done. For the good of Onan and the pleasure of the gods.” Jem hardly saw the sheen of tears before she blinked them away and turned her head forward.
Across the temple, the chieftain’s son—Cador—seemed to be having a similar discussion with his father, who was stone-faced and clearly unyielding. There didn’t seem to be another parent there. A thunderous expression creased the scarred face of Cador’s older brother, and he argued with their father as well while the sister seemed to ignore them all.
Married? To this stranger from a place that might as well be from one of Jem’s books? Married to a huge man with all those muscles that both enticed and terrified him? Good gods. No. This couldn’t be happening. It simply couldn’t.
He’d told his parents he’d prefer a male spouse or perhaps someone of an open gender like Santo. Santo was married to a wonderful man, and Jem’s brothers were wed to women. His mother’s sister had a wife, and across Onan, marriages had always bonded whoever chose to be joined, children adopted or born of unions, no matter which.
Choice playing a vital role. After being spurned by the soldier and retreating to his daydreams and the pages of his books, Jem had idly hoped to one day find a good man who was pretty and kind and enjoyed reading in the evenings. Certainly not this beastly barbarian who likely couldn’t even read his own name.
Yes, it was true that Cador had stirred Jem’s loins the way a hero warrior in one of his books might. It had been a harmless fantasy! A whim to pass the time while he’d been forced to sit through the sermon. Nothing more!
It was impossible.
Jem’s mind whirled this way and that like a flock of dillywigs zigzagging through the sky. Tonight, he’d appeal to his parents. Santo would help. There had to be another way to unify with Ergh. Neuvellan weddings took place after harvest, which was months off. Jem would find a way to stop this. He’d run away if he had to.
If only he could fly. He missed his feathered companions from the lake with a pang of longing so fierce it stole his breath. He shot to his feet, the need to move shattering his rigid shock.
A fresh burst of nervous laughter echoed through the temple, to the obvious displeasure of the clerics. A voice behind him from his own people jeered. “Perhaps he’s eager for it!”
“Gods, can you imagine?” someone replied in a low voice that wasn’t low enough. “Look at those savages! I wager he won’t survive the wedding night. His groom might break him in two!”
Laughter rippled out despite the clerics’ admonishing glares, although Ebrenn’s king did not look amused in the least, his expression thunderous. Jem’s face burned as more voices around the temple gossiped, as if this was all a bit of folly and not his life. Standing there, willing himself to simply disappear, he glanced left and right.
The raised courtyard temple had only one entry under the marble arch, the path leading into the hillside, winding a twisting route that led to a flowered meadow and the low, sprawling stone home of the clerics.
The delegates slept in austere chambers in wings corresponding to their kingdoms. The Ergh wing had stood empty for lifetimes upon lifetimes. And now Jem was expected to marry one of them?
The archway to freedom was too far to make a run for it, but now that Jem stood, sitting again on the awful chair was too great a surrender. He kept his head high and walked calmly across the temple, putting one thin-soled boot in front of the other.
He didn’t risk a glance toward the Northern delegates. His eyes stung, and if he burst into tears in front of everyone—let alone in front of the barbarians—he might wither up and die right then and there.
Whispers followed him into the twisting tunnel through the earth, flickering torchlight casting ghoulish shadows across his path. The murmurs faded, his own harsh breath filling the quiet as he broke into a run, passing a startled young soldier who guarded the exit into the purple meadow.
Jem yearned to crawl under his blankets and wake with all of this nothing but an unfortunate dream. Footsteps echoed on the stone floor of the path inside the hill, and he imagined the barbarian bursting out, hauling him over his wide shoulder like a sack of grain, and spiriting him away to the frozen North.
Jem ruthlessly quashed a traitorous pulse of desire.
Santo appeared in the meadow, and Jem barely resisted throwing himself into his sibling’s arms. Brown skin glistening, Santo dabbed sweat from their forehead. They frowned at the low sun and urged Jem toward the southern wing of the guest quarters.
They kept their dark, glossy hair far longer than Jem, and lifted the curls from the back of their neck. “I’ve never known it to be so hot here at the Holy Place. Feels like we’re back home,” Santo groused.
“If only,” Jem muttered. Santo complained about the heat most days, but loved their long hair, as did their husband, who enjoyed weaving it into elaborate patterns. Jem had always found it romantic, but at the moment, any notion of romance made his stomach curdle.
The clerics’ headquarters wasn’t a castle like the one Jem’s family had lived in for centuries, the idea being that the Holy Place was austere and simple and only there in service of the gods. Although it still had a grand dining hall and Jem suspected there were more comforts hidden in its maze of buildings.
In the cool stone corridor of the southern guest wing, a servant nodded to them serenely and offered to bring refreshments to the chamber Jem was using. Once they were alone inside with fresh water, tea, and a plate of little round cakes, Jem was only able to sip from his cup, the idea of sweets turning his stomach.
“I’m not marrying him,” he announced, pacing back and forth by the narrow bed. On one pass, he bumped the side table and shot out a hand to save the tower of books he’d brought on the journey from toppling. “We know next to nothing of him or these people! They reappear after lifetimes and we’re supposed to, to—marry them? I’m supposed to marry one of them? I don’t even know him! And gods, look at him!”
Perched on the side of the mattress, the sleeves of their purple silk shirt rolled up, Santo sighed heavily. They wore tall boots and tight breeches like Jem’s and ran their palms over the material, making a shushing sound. “Jem, you don’t have a choice. The bargain has been struck.”
“Then they can un-strike it. It’s only spring. There are months until wedding season. Ergh can find fellowship with Neuvella and please the whims of the gods in some other manner.”
Santo made a little sound of…what? Jem stared at them, hair standing up on the back of his neck at the miserable expression creasing his sibling’s face. “What is it?”
“Well… The thing is that the wedding will be out of season. For the sake of securing this bond with Ergh.” Santo held up their hands. “I only learned of any of this earlier today. I’m sorry. I tried to warn you, but you were off following the birds as usual.”
“Out of season,” Jem repeated, fresh dread sinking through him.
Santo bit their lip. “For the good of Onan?”
“When is this wedding to take place?” The fingers of dread closed into an iron fist in Jem’s belly. “When?” His voice rose. “When?”
His knees buckled, but he caught himself. Santo half rose, but Jem waved them off and dropped onto the bed beside them. He flattened his hands on his thighs, then dug in his fingers, the soft material of his breeches bunching.
“I don’t understand,” Jem whispered. He slumped against his sibling, and Santo wrapped an arm around him.
“It was the clerics’ suggestion,” Mother said from the open doorway. She strode in, gathering the bright silk of her long red dress aside before perching on the stone chair across from the bed in the narrow chamber.
Father entered behind her, closing the wooden door with a creak and loud thud. His dark hair was threaded with gray, yet his belly showed no softening of age. He clasped his hands behind his back and said nothing, waiting for his wife to speak.
Gold and silver rings glittered on her threaded fingers. Jem looked at his favorite, a silver bird with wings spread wide and green stones for eyes. As a child, she’d let him wear it on his thumb whenever he asked even though he’d lost it more than once and owed the eagle-eyed servants for finding it.
But Mother had never refused him anything, even when she should. Jem stared at her now, feeling like she’d slipped a fatal knife between his ribs.
“Darling, I’ve told you before that you won’t be able to while away your days with books and birds forever. You’ve reached twenty years. I have been patient, allowing you the time you seemed to need. But you knew this day was coming.”
Jem couldn’t choke down the sputter of outrage as he straightened from his sibling’s half-embrace. “No! I knew I would be assigned more diplomatic tasks, and that I’d wed eventually. I was never warned of this day. Of wedding that barbarian! Tomorrow!”
A perfect curl had escaped the elaborate, jeweled twist of hair around Mother’s head and her golden crown, and she brushed it from her forehead. Their whole family had long, thick eyelashes, but she’d curled hers more for the summit, making her brown eyes even bigger. She blinked away a fresh glistening. When she spoke, her voice was placid.
“It is a blessing that Ergh has returned to Onan. We will be officially united once more under the eyes of the gods. It is an honor to play our roles.”
“I’m to feel honored to be forced into marriage with that brute? A complete stranger? We know barely anything of Ergh and its people! I don’t want anything to do with them.” Jem fought another surge of panic. “It’s not fair!”
His parents shared a glance. Father said, “No, I wouldn’t call it fair at all. Only necessary. Your siblings are already married, and of all the royal children in Onan, you are the best candidate.”
“My cousin of the East is of marriageable age!”
Mother said, “He is to wed the daughter of an important family in Gwels. He loves her and the match is made.”
“What of, of—” He cast about. “Prince Treeve of Ebrenn? He is not wed!”
“You know the West’s reputation. Their king does them no favors. That man is—”
“I know,” Jem interrupted before his mother could launch into a listing of grievances. “Still, Treeve seems pleasant enough.”
Mother’s lips twisted. “Don’t let his pretty face fool you. No one in that family is to be trusted.” She raised her hand, and Jem glimpsed the marriage brand that had been seared into her palm in the shape of a crown. “You will wed Cador of Ergh tomorrow. There is no alternative. We know you prefer men, or else you could have married the chieftain’s daughter. We all want this to be a good match.”
The daughter would be no less frightening. Jem sputtered. “But why must we marry at all?”
“The clerics wish it,” Mother answered. “They have toiled for lifetimes to make Onan whole once more. The gods wish it. The time has come. Bonds must be forged.”
“But why?” Jem wanted to stamp his foot. He cleared his throat and lowered his voice. It wouldn’t do to keep acting like a child. “We haven’t needed them for so many years. We don’t need them now. They can keep their wild boar and their furs.”
Mother frowned. “Perhaps they need us, Jem. Ergh was cast out alone while we have been blessed by the gods and lived together in harmony.”
Jem scoffed mightily. “You’ve argued with the West forever! You just said none of them are to be trusted! If it’s not the border in the Valley of the Gods, it’s the price of oil from deep in their mountains, or even the cost of a bushel of sevels.”
Her jaw tightened. “You have no idea how much the king has raised prices. We need oil, Jem. To light our lamps and make our perfumes and lotions and all sorts of conveniences you’ve never thought twice about. Do you know how much Neuvella depends on our perfume industry? Ebrenn has only produced pale imitations that gather dust on shelves. While we grow every other ingredient and hold the artisanal knowledge, the oil only comes from those damn mountains.”
He couldn’t deny that he had never given any of it a moment’s consideration. “All right, so admit it! You hate the king. If not for the clerics forever making peace, we’d have been at war years ago. Didn’t you just threaten to cut off Ebrenn’s supply of grain from the East because they’re encroaching on the border? And didn’t they promise revenge for… I don’t even know what, but the king was snarling at you.”
His parents couldn’t deny it, looking decidedly uncomfortable. Santo stayed silent. Mother said stiffly, “It’s true we’ve had our differences, especially with Ebrenn. Trade must be fair, and we must defend our border. But no one wants war.”
Jem sighed. “Why can’t you just live alongside each other in actual harmony? You’ll defend what you say is the border—although the West disagrees. Then they’ll act out this revenge, and you’ll retaliate, and the clerics will warn us about angering the gods, promising drought or floods or hurricanes, or being banished altogether like Ergh. And you’ll ease back for a time, until new tensions bubble up over who knows what. And you only cooperate so well with Gwels because that’s Father’s homeland and you must.”
Mother shrugged. “Yes. That’s precisely why the clerics arranged the marriage between me and a prince of Gwels.” She gave Jem’s father a tender look that he returned. “Though we were most displeased about it at the time, what a gift they bestowed on us.”
Father took her hand, pressing their branded palms together. “The gods blessed us truly. Not only do we keep the peace between our lands, but our hearts are so full and—”
“Yes, yes, that’s wonderful for you!” Jem snapped. “Can we get back to me marrying that beast who looks as though he’d just as soon murder me in cold blood than cherish me in the bosom of his heart?”
Mother arched a thin brow. “Weren’t you just saying we should live alongside each other in harmony?”
“Well…yes.” He cringed, waiting.
“What better way to find harmony with Ergh than by blending our families? If this reunification is to be a success, we must open our minds about the Erghians. They are not beasts. They are children of the gods as we are, and we must help them find favor again. Lift them up to—”
Jem groaned. “Enough, please.” He didn’t think Mother truly believed in the gods, but she could certainly spout the rhetoric when it suited her.
She gave him a genuine smile. “My darling. It’s frightening, I know. But you may be pleasantly surprised. I know the Erghians seem…” Her delicate brows met as she apparently searched for words.
“Beastly?” Jem suggested. “Ferocious? Unkempt at best?”
Mother settled on, “Foreign. But we must open our hearts. As I said, we are all children of the gods. Children of Onan. The clerics assure me the Erghians are not so different from us. Cruder, perhaps. Wilder. But they are good, hardworking people, which I have seen myself since they have returned to the fold. Their ways might be…simpler, but there is value in that. And we can help them, Jem. We can enrich their lives and share our more modern methods. After all, it is Ergh that has sought to reconnect with us after all this time. We can help them build a better future.”
“I suppose so,” Jem muttered. Yet when he thought of marrying this wild stranger he wanted to run, as pointless as that was. Where would he even go? He’d only ever left home in a carriage and hadn’t paid attention to directions because he’d had his nose in his books.
“Oh, darling.” She stood and drew Jem to his feet. Even his mother was a few inches taller than him. Brushing back his short, wavy hair, she said, “I know this is sudden. I should have given you warning, but I worried you would run home.”
“Could you blame me?”
She smiled. “No, my precious.” Her smile faded. “But I have coddled you too long. Santo and your brothers have taken on much more responsibility while I’ve let you do as you please with your head in the clouds. Or more aptly your nose in books. All those adventures you have in your head—it’s time to take a real one.”
“But…” Jem knew any denial would be little more than a whine, so he kept quiet.
“When one of your hatchlings is ready to fly but afraid to leave the nest, what do you do?”
Jem didn’t want to say it aloud. Still sitting on the bed, Santo oh so helpfully said, “I do believe you give them a nudge.”
“I’d hardly call this a ‘nudge’!” Jem retorted.
Mother took hold of his shoulders. “It’s a shove. You’re right. I should have eased you into your duties. But you insisted yourself today that you’re a man. Time to act like one. You are a prince of Neuvella, and you must do your duty.” She attempted a light tone as she stroked Jem’s hair once more. “Cador seems just as blindsided as you, if it helps. His father swears he is not a cruel man, despite appearances. That he will make a fine husband. Perhaps this will bond the two of you.”
He remembered the curl of Cador’s lip and how he’d accused Jem of being merely a boy. No, Cador’s disgust with him did not help matters whatsoever. Surely they wouldn’t be expected to share Jem’s chamber when they returned to Neuvella? He wanted to ask, but it would make it all too real. No, the castle had many wings, and certainly Cador could have a chamber to himself.
“My darling boy, you didn’t ask for this adventure, but I know you’ll find your way on this new path. You’ll make me proud.” She pressed a kiss to his forehead.
Throat thick, Jem wanted to clutch her close and forget the world, safe in her arms. Instead, he nodded and watched his parents retreat, his mother sweeping from the room and his father sparing him an encouraging smile.
He dropped down beside Santo on the side of the bed, suddenly exhausted like he’d been swimming for hours on a hot summer’s morning.
Santo gave his shoulder a playful punch. “Think of the bright side. The barbarian is certainly a fine piece of flesh. Those muscles!” They grinned. “I’d be jealous if I didn’t have a perfect husband already.” Their fingers traced the fine gold chain that nestled in the hollow of their throat.
Along with their marriage brands, Santo had received a plain twisted necklace, their doting husband insisting anything else would detract from their natural beauty. At fourteen, Jem had thought it the most romantic thing he’d ever heard, and Santo and their love were still just as smitten with each other now.
“I don’t want his muscles. I don’t want anything to do with him.” Jem crossed his arms tightly.
Santo scoffed. “As if you weren’t ogling him all day. No one else might have noticed, but you can’t fool me, brother. You’ve always given burly men the eye.”
“That was only looking! A harmless imagining! Nothing more. I’ve never—” He broke off, humiliation rushing through him like a flame to tinder. At his age, most had dallied for several years before committing to a spouse.
Santo’s eyebrows shot up. “You can’t be serious. You’ve never… You’re a…”
Squirming, Jem jumped up and began pacing. He muttered, “A virgin.”
Jem scowled. “Surely I don’t need to explain to you the lack of certain activity.”
“Sorry. No. I just thought… I know you were a little heartbroken by that soldier after that prank from Pasco and Locryn. But that was ages ago.”
“I made a complete fool of myself, and I haven’t been keen to repeat the experience.”
“He was the fool for passing you up! I understand being hesitant to find a proper suitor, but there are so many options for dallying. No coopers or farmers? Groomsmen or stonemasons or—”
“None of them! No one.” Jem was ready to climb out of his skin. Talking about it made it even worse.
“Huh.” Santo shook their head. “You always watched the big men, so I assumed you’d seek them out to play once you were of age.”
He scoffed. “No one wants me.”
Santo pressed their lips together. “That’s not true. But since that awful prank, when has anyone had a chance? You’ve kept yourself hidden away. You know, if you don’t have the longing for a bedmate, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
“I know!” He exhaled noisily. “Must we speak of this?” When Santo only waited with an arched brow, Jem sighed. “It’s not a lack of wanting. There’s so much longing in my mind, in my… In me.”
“And do you satisfy yourself?” Santo motioned crudely with their hand.
“Yes!” Jem wasn’t about to go into detail. “But making it real with another person… Flesh and blood and not merely fantasy—it’s too daunting.” Too utterly terrifying.
Jem rolled his eyes. “You bedded half the kingdom before you fell for Arthek.”
Santo grinned briefly. “True. But sincerely, I understand. It comes more easily to some, but when you meet the right person—”
“That beast is not the right person!”
“Well…” They grimaced. “I grant you it’s not ideal. But I can give you some tips. First off, think of your mouth as—”
“Stop talking! Think of your mouth as something to shut immediately!” Jem was about to stick his fingers in his ears.
Santo held up their hands. “All right, all right. But if you change your mind, I’m here for you.” They smiled sadly. “It’ll be over soon. You’ll wed him, we’ll have the celebration, and in a day or two, we can go home. It’s a political match—you’ll be free to take as many lovers as you like. Or as few as you like. You’ll have done your duty to the family. And I’m sure this Cador will find no shortage of enthusiastic lovers in Neuvella.”
Perversely, a twist of jealousy tugged at Jem. Utter madness! He steadfastly ignored it.
Santo added, “Soon, you’ll be home by your lake, re-reading The High Tide of Morvoren for the hundredth time.”
Jem sighed warmly. Morvoren was a Southern girl born of land and took a muscled merman lover from the sea, escaping with him to far-off worlds of sea creatures. It had been his favorite book since he’d sneaked it from the library’s adult section, and he looked to his dog-eared copy on the table beneath the stack of newer books he’d brought. He always kept Morvoren close at hand even though he could likely recite her adventures by heart.
“So you’ve really never…” Santo motioned vaguely with their hand. “Not even some light play?”
“Not so much as a kiss,” Jem admitted, his cheeks flaring hot. “As I said, it’s not lack of want. Merely lack of courage.” He shook his head. “I think I shall like to be alone.”
After a firm-yet-gentle hug, Santo left him in peace. A servant brought him a dinner tray later, but Jem couldn’t touch a bite. He forced himself to swallow the sweet wine, curled under the blankets, and opened Morvoren’s book to his favorite part.
He read of Morvoren’s daring escape from pirates to her reunion with her lover on an empty isle where she rode his giant cock on the wet sand with the sea washing around their striving bodies.
As the night wore on, he read it again.
And, well, why not? Again.
Copyright © Keira Andrews
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