In a kingdom ravaged by the beasts and terrors of an ancient war, the only hope against them is the army of mixed-blood beings known as the King's Legion: dragoons, shadowmarch, sorcerers, titans … and the Princes of the Blood, nigh-invincible warriors of fearsome magic and strength, their only weakness a need for pure human blood.
When his brother runs away, Raffé agrees to undergo the Blooding, but he is a pale imitation of his strong, capable brother. No one expects him to survive and become a Prince, merely to die to save the rest of his family and preserve honor.
But runaways and weaklings are the least of the kingdom’s concerns when an ancient evil returns with new tricks, and their only hope lies with knowledge long lost and a fierce bond forged in darkness ...
“What do you mean he ran away?” King Waldemar demanded, his tone making everyone around him recoil, save Crown Prince Birgir, standing beside him, and the Prince of the Blood, who stood in a line behind the throne.
In front of Raffé, his parents flinched, cowered. He wasn’t sure why. Showing that sort of weakness would not encourage King Waldemar to be kinder. “I—” His father swallowed, tried again. “I beg your forgiveness, Majesty. We went to rouse him for dinner and found his room empty, his belongings gone, and only a note saying farewell pinned to his pillow. I don’t know why—”
“You can spare me your whining and pleading,” Waldemar said. “Your children bear the proper ratio of demon blood; by law you are required to provide one son for Blooding. Those suited to the Blooding are few, and we need all that we can get. That you would fail to provide is not only a flagrant refusal to obey the law—it is treason!”
“Take me,” Raffé said before his parents could speak, stepping in front of them to drop to his knees before the throne. He placed his fisted hands in front of him, knuckles to the floor, and bowed his head low. “My blood is the same. Take me in his place, Majesty.”
Silence met his words, and Raffé felt his cheeks flush in anticipation of shame. He could all but feel his parents’ mortification, hear the amused derision of the assembled court in their tittering, poorly muffled laughs, the disapproval of his fiancé in the sound of his shuffling feet. He cringed when the silence stretched on, but said, “I am not my brother, Majesty, I know. We are the same blood, however, and I have not run away—and will not.” He dared to look up, meet the king’s gaze, hoping he understood what Raffé was not saying: that he would die if his Majesty would spare his parents.
Because he wasn’t his brother. Tallas was a warrior: tall, broad, all muscle and agility. He wielded sword, lance, and bow as though they were toys. He was handsome, charming. Without ever seeming to try, Tallas was everything desired of those who underwent the Blooding. He would have become a Prince of the Blood and earned a place of honor. With his sun-dark skin and brown-red hair, he would have fit well among them.
Raffé was built like his aunt, his mother’s ill-favored little sister. He was average in height, but less than average in everything else: build, looks, martial prowess, and strength. He was plain, with pasty skin and flat black hair and a quiet, soft-spoken manner. He was better off shunted into an office than let onto the battlefield with his peers. In a month, he would marry an affluent merchant who would bring money and connections to his family and settle him neatly in a handsome townhouse with his husband’s two wives.
That he could join the ranks of the Princes of the Blood was absurd. So he said nothing when the court laughed and jested and King Waldemar and the Princes of Blood around him remained coldly silent. Finally, King Waldemar demanded silence with a sharp cut of his hand and regarded Raffé pensively.
If Raffé undertook the Blooding, and died trying, then the bargain was kept, honor satisfied, and though his parents would suffer for the broken promise, they would not lose their lives or their livelihood. The situation worked out neatly for everyone—except Raffé, but it was his duty to assume the burdens his brother had abandoned. If he wished his vain, vapid brother had stopped and realized his behavior would forfeit the lives of his parents and brother … Well, Raffé wished for a lot of things. That did not mean he was stupid enough to think he would ever get them.
Two of the Princes stepped forward at the king’s bidding, bending low to converse with him and the crown prince. Raffé tried not to stare, but he did not dare risk looking somewhere else and appearing disinterested. His chest felt as though it was seizing when the king dismissed them and once more regarded Raffé. “So be it,” King Waldemar pronounced, and dread and depression churned in Raffé’s gut. “You are dismissed for tonight. The Blooding will take place at dawn as originally planned.”
Raffé swallowed, for that gave him eight hours left to live. He could not imagine that he would survive—if he had the potential to take, and survive, the Blooding, they would have chosen him. He could not even really comprehend it. They had been at the castle for a month, and that after a long three month journey from the southernmost corner of the kingdom where his family’s holding were located. He had loved the traveling, seeing the royal castle that was the source of so much notoriety, the colorful inhabitants who had been little more than stories to him until their arrival. He had spent his days exploring as much as he could, memorizing it so the he could feed off the memories the rest of his dreary life.
He’d envied his brother the chance to live a larger, brighter life. Had long ago resigned himself to a miserable one. Raffé had spent most of the evening making plans about his quiet, simple wedding with his fiancé. He’d thought he’d had all the time in the world to be miserable.
A long stretch of life reduced to eight hours. Raffé felt something should be said, done. Such a moment should not pass in silence. No one spoke, however, so he only bowed his head again and murmured his gratitude before he rose and followed his parents out of the throne room and back to their suite.
“You’re a fool,” his mother said when the doors were closed and the servants dismissed.
Normally, Raffé said whatever was necessary to calm his mother and move on. Anything was better than enduring the razor edge of her rage for the hours or days it lasted. But he only had eight hours left—what did her anger matter to him? He was losing his life because of his stupid brother, and as was typical, she blamed him instead. “Tallas is the fool,” Raffé said. “I’ll do my best to survive the ceremony, but if I hadn’t volunteered, we would all be doing the dance of death right now.”
“Whether you live or not, our lives are ruined. Your brother is gone, you will be gone—we’re disgraced and now the alliance with Hilto will never happen,” his father said, looking tired. “We will have to give back all that betrothal money, and you know how sorely we needed it.”
Raffé shoved back the hurt. What had he expected, words of love? Words of gratitude? His parents had never had enough of either to spare for their tepid son. “Blame Tallas. He is the one who committed treason. At least now you’ll live to complain about us both.” He turned and walked away before they could reply, refusing to waste any of his last hours arguing with them.
He wandered the halls of the castle until he reached the royal gardens and the maze there that he had adored from the moment he saw it. He’d heard it whispered that the Shadowmarch used it for training, but it was also open to all who cared to use it, so he did not know if the training rumor was true. The king’s maze was nothing like the childishly simple hedge maze in his mother’s garden. No, the king’s maze was made of dark stone polished to a mirror smoothness and towered nearly twice his height. Since he was largely unnecessary and left to his own devices, he had explored the maze for hours in the month they’d been at the royal castle. So far he had managed to find three different routes to the center. It was unfortunate he would not have the opportunity to find more, silly a thing as it was to be disappointed about hours from his death.
Night had fallen heavily, snow drifting down lazily. It would get worse later, to judge by the feel and the smell, but for the moment it was a beautiful, quiet winter night. Raffé relished it a moment, lingering at the entrance to the maze. He could not read the gold plaque set in the wall beside the entrance in the weak light of the torches, but he knew the words by heart: The only way to find yourself is to get lost.
He turned at the sound of his name spoken in that smooth, cultured voice, surprised and elated that Almor had sought him out. It sped the beating of his heart, reminded him of what he had hoped to ask Almor. He smiled in greeting and said brightly, “Almor, I was hoping to speak to you tonight. I am sorry for this turn in events. I hope you will forgive me, forgive my family.” He stepped in close, reached up to kiss—and was stung when Almor turned so that the kiss glanced off his cheek.
“It is a shame that it has come to this,” Almor said briskly.
“It’s not over yet,” Raffé said, suddenly annoyed. Why did everyone so quickly and easily assume he would die? There was a chance, however slight, that he would survive the Blooding. Did no one have faith in him, or even hope he would defy the odds? Were they all so eager to say goodbye? Maybe they were just putting on a brave front.
The explanation rang false, especially since even he didn’t think he would survive. “Speaking of the Blooding, I did want to speak to you about—about something.” He curled his hands around the edges of his cloak, shoulders hunching,
“What was that?” Almor asked warily.
Raffé ignored it because damn everyone, he had the right to a last request. “I’m but hours from dying, and I just wondered—I was hoping—”
“Say it. You know how it drives everyone mad when you fumble and stutter so.”
He wouldn’t struggle to speak if everyone did not treat him like he was some form of torture, but Raffé kept the bitter thought to himself. “I wondered if my honored fiancé would spend my last night with me. I don’t want to die without—without knowing—” He stopped, unable to say it—and then comprehension filled Almor’s face, and Raffé’s heart sped up. They’d never exchanged more than perfunctory kisses, and they were both quite busy, and Almor lived hours away in a larger city, where he managed his merchant company with his two wives. Raffé had only met them once, but they had seemed nice, and he had hoped he would fit well into the family. He’d heard that such marriages could be enjoyable when all parties got along.
Clearly he would never find out, but he hoped to have some taste of it before he died.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Almor said, his tone cool, almost indifferent.
“What?” Raffé asked, face burning with humiliation. He wasn’t his brother, but he wasn’t hideous. “Why not? You’re still my fiancé, and we were to be married in less than a month. Haven’t you been looking forward to …” He trailed off at the look on Almor’s face. His heart giving a painful twist, and it suddenly hurt to breathe.
Almor drew himself up stiffly, looking and sounding decidedly uncomfortable. “It was a business marriage, Raffé. I’m sorry, but … it’s not a good idea. Good luck tomorrow with the ceremony.” He gave Raffé’s cheek a perfunctory kiss then turned and walked away.
Raffé had cried a lot as a boy, unable to understand why nothing he did was right, why everything about him was wrong when he tried so hard to please. Why everyone gave Tallas everything and would not give him even a single chance. He’d stopped crying when he realized it made things worse, was one of the things wrong with him. He had refused to cry again. People might hurt him, but they did not need to know it—they did not deserve to have that kind of power over him.
He wanted to cry then, however, alone at the entrance to a maze, seven hours from a likely death, with no one to bid him farewell, to say they loved him, to ensure his last hours were happy ones.
Was he so terrible a person?
But looking back, he could not remember anything about him that was remarkable. He had always stood in his brother’s shadow, always been one face in a thousand. So he was not terrible, no. He was simply … tepid. Who liked tepid?
He still wished someone …
Pushing the futile thought away, he plunged into the maze, following the third path to the center that he had discovered. It was nearly impossible to see, but memorization and weak torchlight sufficed for him. Letting his feet walk the memorized path, he lost himself in a favorite daydream: A man walking into Raffé’s study, a marriage mark on the back of his right hand, tired but happy to be home. Raffé abandoned his desk to greet the man, kiss him warmly, laughing when his husband made it clear a mere kiss would not be enough.
After a few minutes, he pushed the daydream away again, unable to bear the pain. It had always been a slender hope and had quite firmly moved into the realm of impossible. He had learned a long time ago that nothing was gained by dwelling on the impossible. Only a few more hours and maybe in his next life he would make better use of it.
He wondered where Tallas had gone and hoped something horrible was happening to the selfish wretch. The stupid bastard deserved to—
Someone roughly grabbed him, and Raffé cried out in panic—but his breath whooshed out of him as he was knocked against the stone wall of the maze, rough and cold against his back despite all his layers. Black, everything was absolutely black. The torchlight did not extend to the little nook where his captor held him. “What are you doing?” Raffé asked.
The man chuckled, his voice deep, rough, running right down Raffé’s spine in a way he’d never felt before. “Normally, the first question put to me is, ‘Who are you?’. That is followed by, ‘What do you think you are doing?’ sometimes with a ‘How dare you!’ sometimes not. Usually after that comes, ‘Do you know who I am?’ No one ever simply asks what I am doing.”
“I sincerely doubt my identity has anything to do with the matter.” Raffé’s heart was still beating madly in his chest, but other than the first scare, the man did not seem inclined to harm him. “As to yours—if you were interested in making yourself known you would have introduced yourself, not grabbed me and thrown me into a wall. Do you often grab people in the dark and throw them into walls?”
“Depends on the reason. I often throw men into things when they prove threatening. But men like you? Not very often at all.”
“Men like me?” Raffé asked. “I do not take your meaning. Men like what?”
There was only silence in reply, but Raffé knew silences. He understood silences better than words. He had learned the hard way that words had too many sharp edges. Silences were simple. Whatever the man had been deliberating, he finally settled on, “I overheard you and your fiancé. Ex-fiancé, strictly speaking.”
Raffé cringed, face going hot again, and he was extremely grateful for the dark that hid his abject humiliation. Bad enough that his fiancé had rejected him hours before he was to die, had told him in no uncertain terms that Raffé was not worth fucking—why did the gods hate him so much that his humiliation had been overheard?
“You should be feeling relieved, little prince,” the man said, startling Raffé by calling him that.
He was a little prince, if only for a few more hours. Some small bit of pride sparked at that. There were currently only fourteen Princes of the Blood. Finding those with the correct amount of demon blood in their veins who would be able to handle the difficult life was close to impossible. He might only be a replacement, he might be too weak to survive the Blooding and ill-suited to the life anyway, but for the next seven hours he was a little prince, and no one could take that from him.
“Relieved?” he finally asked.
“That man proved himself a coward by his actions, and no man wants to be married to a coward.”
“He is not the one called coward,” Raffé said quietly. He tried to at least look in the direction of the voice, though it was hard to gauge with the way sound echoed around the stone walls. He tilted his head up, sensing the man loomed over him.
The man chuckled, and that sensation trickled up and down Raffé’s spine again, made him feel more awake. “You are many things, little prince, but I would not call you a coward. I watched you in the throne room, and I listen to you now. Cowardice is not what comes to mind.”
Raffé wanted to know what did, but was terrified of the answer. “You still have not explained why you are shoving me into walls.”
“I believe there is a last request in want of fulfilling, little prince, and I aim to fulfill it,” the man said, voice going husky, and before Raffé could process the words, his mouth was taken. He-he was being kissed.