Ingram is a coward and weakling—at least according to his father, the king, and the royal court. He cannot use a sword, he faints at the sight of blood, and even his brilliant abilities as a strategist are not enough to overcome his failings. When his father loses a bet to the notorious Lord Mallory over the matter of a dragon slaying, he pays his debt by ordering Ingram to marry him.
Then his father reveals that he is putting Ingram to a greater purpose, giving Ingram one last chance to prove he is not worthless. All it requires is betraying his new husband.
His nerves already strung tight, Ingram jumped at the question. When he managed to calm his racing heart, he turned to study the man beside him. Hunter Merritt was the perfect example of a soldier: tall, broad-shouldered, and his brown hair cut short with military precision. Even if Ingram stood as straight as he could, he would still have been a head shorter than Hunter.
Ingram looked away. “What is there to be nervous about?” He tried to sound confident, but he knew he’d failed when he saw the pitying expression on Hunter’s face.
“This cannot be anything but good, Your Highness. Likely he wishes to congratulate you on your victory.”
That was too impossible to believe, and yet hope was a steady flame in his chest. His father’s last words to him when he’d left had held the sincere hope that Ingram would make a man of himself. Since Ingram had finally returned, lauded as a critical piece of a successful campaign, his father would have to recognize Ingram’s accomplishments.
They had reached the corridor that would lead to his father’s study, and Hunter glanced up and down it to ensure that they were alone before he took hold of Ingram’s arm and gave it an encouraging squeeze. “Don’t be so pessimistic, Ingram.” Hunter’s familiar address made Ingram smile. Usually he referred to Ingram by his title, unless they were in bed. Ingram had tried to convince him to make a regular practice of it, but Hunter had never managed to break the habit.
They quickly pulled away when they heard footsteps. Their relationship, steps beyond friendship, would not have been approved of by most in the castle, and least of all by the king. So far out of favor already, Ingram hardly needed further reason to draw his father’s ire, and Hunter wouldn’t have risked his career, even for Ingram. Perhaps that was a part of the reason he’d never once dropped Ingram’s title.
The servant they’d heard approaching stopped in front of them. “His Majesty awaits your arrival.” He managed to sound both subservient and scolding at the same time.
When he turned and began to lead the way, Ingram whispered quickly, “I shall hope for the best.”
“And prepare for the worst?”
Hunter laughed, the expression softening his severe looks. Watching him, Ingram thought it was a pity that things between them had never developed beyond friendship and the occasional shared warm bed. Hunter was certainly handsome enough. But there’d never been any fire to their relationship, and back in Solberg, the capital city of Abelen, again, the sexual part of their relationship would probably end. “Always the pragmatist, Your Highness. That’s why you’re such an excellent strategist.”
The servant knocked at the door to his father’s study and announced their presence. Ingram fought hard to swallow the fear that rose in his gut as he stepped inside. As they entered, King Roderick watched them both closely.
It was hard to find resemblance between Ingram and his father. Roderick was thick and muscular still, despite the fact that it had been years since he’d last led soldiers into battle. His brown hair had long since given way to gray, and the scar on his cheek was but one of the many he wore on his body.
In contrast, Ingram stood at just barely average height, and he was lithe where his father was muscular. His blond hair had been cut short when he’d left the castle as a part of Hunter’s company of soldiers. It was still too long for a proper soldier, falling past his ears with the slightest curl, but Ingram had never found himself directly on the battlefield, and it never became a problem. And Ingram’s eyes were gray, nothing like the intense green gaze that settled on Ingram as Roderick frowned.
“Captain Merritt. Ingram.” Roderick sat and gestured that they should take their seats as well. “I understand congratulations are in order for your successes in Arrington.”
Nomads had caught the kingdom by surprise with their brutal taking of Arrington. The first priority had been defending the eastern cities, and as Hunter’s company was the closest, that task had fallen onto their shoulders. But Hunter hadn’t been content simply to defend; he’d wanted to make a name for himself, and Ingram had been easily lured by the temptation of seeing that light of pride in his father’s eyes at last.
In the end, it hadn’t been all that difficult. The nomads grew arrogant in their victory, spending their nights overindulging in drink. An old passage for trade had brought Hunter’s men into the city and a bit of draught in the nomads’ wine supplies had seen them too slow to fight back and defend themselves. By the time King Roderick’s soldiers arrived, Arrington had been reclaimed.
“Thank you for your kind words, Your Majesty. I owe a large part of the victory, however, to Prince Ingram. It was thanks to him that our victory came with so few losses.”
“And plenty of prisoners for our dungeons,” Roderick added. He glanced once more at Ingram, consideration in his eyes. “And did you take part in the battle as well, Ingram?”
That hope, the fragile flame Ingram had been nursing since their return to Solberg, flickered and burned low. “I did not, Your Majesty.”
“He organized the entire matter, Your Majesty. Oversaw the capture of our enemy while we chased down those cowards that would have fled.”
Ingram was thankful for Hunter’s attempt to point out Ingram’s accomplishments, but he could see the way his father’s expression darkened. It chased the last of his hopeful flame away. “I see,” his father stated simply, dismissing Ingram entirely with those two words. “I apologize for not having much time to properly congratulate you, but I had hoped that an invitation to dine at my table this evening so that I may hear more of your victory in Arrington might suit?”
Hunter’s eyes widened and his mouth opened without words. It was all he’d wanted on a single platter. At least one of them would walk away with exactly what they’d wanted. Regardless of his rank or his common origins, a seat at King Roderick’s table would elevate Hunter’s standing. Likely he’d soon find himself promoted as well. Jealousy rose in Ingram, a dark, viscous thing, and even if Ingram tried, he couldn’t have pushed it down.
“I would be honored, Your Majesty.”
“Excellent. If you might give me a moment to speak to my son in private?”
“Of course.” Hunter’s voice was still filled with wonder. He stood with a bow to Roderick, seemingly having forgotten Ingram entirely, and left.
King Roderick waited until Hunter’s footsteps disappeared. “I wish you would stop running off with those damned soldiers.”
“I thought that was what you wanted, Father.”
“What I wanted.” Roderick laughed softly. “What I wanted was a son that was not a coward.”
Ingram bristled at his father’s words. “I am not a coward.”
“Are you not? Have you yet to learn how to use the sword, or put it to proper application?”
“No.” He couldn’t, not when even the smell of blood sent him to his knees and the sight of it into a dead faint. “But that doesn’t make me any less of—”
“Do not mistake me. I have respect for the honorable profession of strategizing, but it is better left to men past their prime. Not a man who chooses to cover his weakness.”
Ingram’s jaw clenched tightly as he fought back twin surges of rage and hurt. “It must be a pity, then, for you to have such a son.”
“A pity, certainly,” Roderick murmured in agreement.
“Then the next time I travel with the company, I shall endeavor not to return.” Ingram pushed to his feet, intent on leaving before he made a fool of himself by letting the angry tears that pricked at the corner of his eyes fall.
His exit was interrupted by a booming command. “Sit down, child.” Scowling, Ingram sat. “You will not stomp from my study in such a ridiculous temper. And you will not be joining your company when they leave. I will not have you dying in a skirmish, not while you are still of use.”
Perhaps he should have been even a little happy knowing that his father cared enough in his own way to not see him dead. “Of use?”
“I have made arrangements for you to marry Lord Dunn’s daughter. It will be announced tonight at the banquet.”
“Lord Dunn’s daughter?” Ingram wracked his brain to put a face to the name. “Abigail?”
“Is there something wrong with her?”
“Nothing.” Ingram once thought they might make good friends, except Abigail had a tendency to look past him as though he barely existed, and Ingram got enough of that from his father. He wanted to argue his father’s plans, but it would have been a waste of breath. Ingram wondered if he should have been grateful that his father had use for him at all, except it hurt to realize that his father held so little respect for him. “If that is your wish, Father.”
Roderick nodded and turned his attention back to his desk. “Then you are dismissed.”
Ingram nodded and stood. “Before I leave, I’d like to recommend that you deploy a force to Arrington. The people would sleep better if they knew they were guarded against another attack.” And otherwise, the nomads would just come back.
“I’ll take it under suggestion,” Roderick said dismissively.
Ingram knew he ought to argue. He ought to make a bigger deal. They could spare the men. But he swallowed his words the same way he always had. Ingram had walked into his father’s office with so much hope despite himself, and it was so easily crushed. It shouldn’t have been a surprise.
The hallway was empty when he stepped out into it. Of course. Hunter would have hurried off to ready himself for King Roderick’s banquet.
There in the quiet, with his father safely behind the closed door, Ingram wanted so badly to sink into the unhappiness that threatened to engulf him. Nothing good would come of that, he reminded himself. Ingram made himself start walking. At least he knew there’d be one person who would be happy to see him.
Following the familiar path, Ingram found his way out to the training yard. A batch of soldiers stood in a line, listening as Orion gave orders. After a few moments, Orion saw him, a bright smile spreading across his face. He pointed to a nearby bench and Ingram nodded, taking a seat to wait for his older brother.
Looking amongst the group of soldiers, Ingram could see that they didn’t seem to be taking the speech very well. Some of their expressions were downright mutinous. It made Ingram wonder exactly what was going on. Before he could figure out the context of Orion’s speech, he’d dismissed the soldiers. Orion stared after them, a troubled expression on his face, before he shook his head and turned his attention to Ingram. His troubled expression shifted to a huge smile as he walked across the training yard, an easy confidence in his steps that Ingram envied.
For as much as Ingram didn’t resemble their father, Orion was almost an exact likeness. He wore his blond hair long and braided but for a few strands that escaped. His features were hard, except when he smiled, and then it was as if the sun had finally crept above the horizon after a long darkness.
Ingram stood and Orion enfolded him in a tight hug, resting his chin on Ingram’s head. “You’re back! I barely recognize you!”
For as long as he could remember, Orion had always been there for him with a bright smile and a hug, even when Ingram had proven completely inept at his training. Even though Ingram sometimes suspected that Orion was baffled by him. Orion had been the one to find him after Ingram’s sword instructor tried and failed to teach him the best places to aim for a sure kill. He’d been the one to sit beside Ingram when he’d fainted at the sight of blood. And Orion was the one who’d encouraged him to begin studying his books when a second instructor had proclaimed Ingram worthless.
His oldest sister, Alyss, was away far too often to see much of her younger siblings. And while he was close to Ella, who was older than him only by two years, she was tied up in the intricacies of court. She understood the politics far better than Ingram could ever hope to. Orion, though, Orion had always been big brother and hero all in one. He was Ingram’s best friend and his closest ally.
“I haven’t changed one bit. Is there something wrong?” When Orion gave him a confused look, Ingram gestured toward the direction the soldiers had gone in.
“Oh, that? No, it’s nothing,” Orion lied easily, releasing him. Ingram might have believed it, too, if he hadn’t seen the lines of worry around Orion’s eyes.
“Nothing?” Ingram saw one of the soldiers gesticulate wildly before scowling back at the two of them.
“Nothing for you to worry about.” Orion started to ruffle his hair, and Ingram ducked out from under his hand. There was nothing like his older brother to make him feel like he was still twelve years old. “I have it under control.”
Usually, such a statement would fill him with faith that Orion truly did have the situation under control, but he’d seen the look on those soldier’s faces. “Orion—”
“It’s nothing, Ingram,” Orion said sharply. An awkward silence fell between them until Orion continued in a softer voice. “Have you been to see Father already?”
Ingram frowned, but he allowed the change in subject. “I have. He was his usual self.”
“He’s running me ragged with these preparations for the queen’s birth.” Orion stretched and there was an audible pop. “Everything must be perfect, and she’s not helping, of course. Always complaining about something or the other.”
Ingram grimaced. He felt sorry for the girl his father had married, barely two years older than Ingram himself, but she’d always been an unhappy person. Nothing wiped the pinched frown from her lips, or took the sharp, angry words from her tongue.
Ingram looked up to see Orion watching him, a fond look on his face. “What?”
“Have you seen Ella? Is it all right for you to be out here?” Orion’s eyes searched Ingram’s face for any signs of illness.
“I’m fine, Orion.” He swatted away the hand Orion raised to his forehead. “I’m not going to faint from being around a few swords.” Ingram knew Orion was only worried, but he couldn’t help his annoyance. Orion’s overbearing worry was almost worse than their father’s derision. “I only just returned. Enough time to change clothes before I had to meet with the general and with Father.”
“Your meeting with Father should have gone well. I heard of how successful the taking of Arrington was.” Some of his unhappiness must have shown on his face, because Orion went abruptly quiet. “It didn’t go well?” he asked in a much softer tone a few moments later.
“It went fine,” Ingram lied automatically. It wasn’t worth it to pull Orion into his problems with the king. They’d fight and somehow Orion would come out the worse for it.
Unfortunately, Orion knew him too well to settle for that answer. “You’re lying.”
With a sigh, Ingram told him what had happened in his father’s office ending with, “Also, he believes I’m a useless coward, which isn’t anything new, really.”
Orion’s jaw was clenched tight with rage, but when Ingram finished, he pulled him in close again, an arm around his shoulder. “He doesn’t think that way.”
“He’s said so. Twice.”
Orion winced. “He’s a bit old-fashioned in his thinking.”
Ingram’s fists clenched; he was tired of the excuses for their father. But it wasn’t worth the fight, not when he’d only just returned to see Orion. “I don’t want to talk about it. Not now. I’ve missed you and Ella.”
Orion dropped an affectionate kiss on his forehead before releasing him. “We’ve missed you, too. And you missed some interesting court business.”
“Oh yes. Didn’t Ella write you? The dragon slayer visited.” Orion started walking toward the castle and Ingram fell into step beside him. “He’s sworn to slay the red dragon haunting the villages near Riese Lake.”
Ingram had heard a bit about the dragon during his travels. Mostly that it was a vicious thing with claws that could easily rend a man’s skin. “Can he really slay it? I’ve heard plenty of men have tried.”
“I wasn’t there for the exact incident, but I hear he’s made a bet with Father over it. Made a fool of him while he was at it, too. That was nearly four months ago. I doubt he survived it. And even if he did, by the time father’s done recovering his wounded pride, he’ll wish he hadn’t.”
Ingram made a noise of agreement. A dragon slayer. It sounded more like fantasy than truth. Almost like the dragons themselves. But there were too many tales of the dragons these days, tales filled with loss and blood, to call them a myth much longer, and maybe this dragon slayer could put an end to the creature that many soldiers had died trying to face.
Ingram was curious about the slayer. What did it take to stare a myth in the face, much less slay it? A man like that would think nothing of challenging King Roderick. Orion was probably right to doubt his survival. A single man against a dragon could hardly be expected to conquer it, yet still Ingram found himself hoping.