Secrets, madness, lies…and a love forged in the flames of betrayal.
Imprisoned, starved and abused by his captors, Darcel finds his only escape in the depths of madness. But he’s tormented by his own demons, who taunt him with the memories of his past and of his beloved prince, Alasar of Rais. The man who condemned him to this prison for killing the enemy’s high king. The man who betrayed him, when he should have returned a hero. After three years of torment, Darcel is about to give up, to turn himself over to the demon for the blessed release of death. Until he hears the pounding of boots up the prison stairs and finds Alasar in his cell, overjoyed at finally finding him, distraught at his condition, and desperate to save him, with no knowledge of how his friend had come to be there.
After tending his wounds, Alasar transports Darcel back to the palace by sledge, no easy task since it’s deep winter and Darcel is barely alive. But when the enemy raiders attack their party and capture Darcel, it’s clear they seek vengeance for the murder of their king. Until their new king, Harlech, explains that Darcel was not captured, but sold to them. By Alasar.
Caught in a tangled web of secrets, lies, and betrayal, Darcel does not know whom to trust—or whom to serve. With two warring leaders both demanding his loyalty, and both men earning his love, how is Darcel supposed to know what’s real, or where his heart truly lies?
Content note: contains dubious consent, intense emotional elements, and male/male love
Darcel never thought they wouldn’t believe in him.Of all the scenarios that had floated about his thoughts during the long and lonely years he had been imprisoned, it had never once occurred to him that they would believe the very lies he had told the enemy.He had done it for them…Surely they knew, surely they trusted him enough to know that he would never work to harm them.Of all the pain he had endured, this was what, in the end, would destroy him.He remembered looking up into those hate filled eyes, his cheek throbbing with the blow he had given him, and knew himself damned.“They never loved you.”Darcel had long since stopped responding to the taunts. At first they had seemed part of his own bleak thoughts, but over time they had coalesced into the form that sat across the room from him, watching him with crimson eyes.“Even after all you did for them, they never loved you.”He felt the memories playing out, pulling him back into the mire of the past. Over and over. The madness pressing closer, personified by the dark creature, the demon who shared his prison. With time and experience, it seemed more and more likely that the demon’s words were true…Darcel had fled the fighting that had overcome his city of Sandeal, slipping from shadow to shadow like the thief he was. The Uldan had overcome the city defenses and now swarmed through the streets. So far, he had evaded their notice as they targeted the defending soldiers. He was only one in a mass panic of citizens, lost in the chaotic flow of humanity.He darted down an alley, emerging into a remote market square, only to skid to a halt. He edged back toward the alley’s protection, then paused, caught in the drama of what he was witnessing—three Uldan warriors against one of Sandeal’s soldiers, surrounding him, pressing upon his failing sword arm.It woke something within Darcel, something inherently foolish. He darted out, caught their attention, throwing stones and giving the man precious moments to gain his breath, to face his opponents with better odds.To watch the man fight was an honor, his movements swift and deadly. He defeated his three attackers and turned to look at Darcel, panting, bright green eyes behind the shadow of his helm.He seemed about to say something, but Darcel only grinned at him, feeling a little spark of warmth in his chest that the soldier lived, that he had actually done something brave for once in his benighted life. Then he slipped into the shadows where the soldier could not follow and fled…back into the darkness of his thoughts, into the torment the demon created for him…No doubt the demon was a product of his own madness.His jailors had beaten him when he screamed the first time he encountered the demon, but they never seemed to see the apparition that haunted him. He had not spoken of it since, not wanting to risk another excuse for the guards to vent their hatred upon him. He bore enough scars of their abuse; he did not need to invite more.It was better when they forgot about him, even though his belly pinched with hunger and his tongue became swollen with thirst. Darcel often wished they would just forget about him completely and he could waste away in peace. But as long as they remembered to bring food and water, his foolish will to survive continually overcame his despair. His mind might want death, but his body fought the notion with all its waning strength.Darcel closed his eyes, hoping to find a moment’s rest, but the demon had no such intentions.Darcel stumbled in the grip of two guards, cursing their mothers with virulent intensity as they dragged him before the magistrate. He couldn’t believe he’d been caught. A cuff to the back of his skull reminded him to keep his eyes lowered and his posture humble. Being anonymous was golden in his line of work. If he could simply blend in, they would not watch him carefully and he could plan his escape.One of his guards yanked his arm with cruel force as he made Darcel kneel before the magistrate. “Caught stealing from the market, my lord.”Darcel wished him a host of painful futures, but kept his gaze on the pale marble floor before him.A powerful voice brought the room to a sudden silence. Darcel hardly understood what was happening until a pair of finely tooled boots came into his vision.A hand reached down to cup his chin.He tensed, testing the bindings on his wrists, but he was unable to move. His head was tilted upward until he looked into brilliant green eyes.Darcel blinked, startled, then frowned, looking closer into the handsome face above him.It was the soldier he had helped in the market.“If it isn’t my little savior!” Those beautiful eyes held curiosity and humor both.Darcel shrugged as best he could in his bonds, tilting his head to better view the man. Rich clothing, an air of command, this was no ordinary soldier, it seemed.He bowed his head in regal acknowledgement, an exact imitation of the nobles he so often pick pocketed.His mimicry was rewarded with a bark of laughter, the hand leaving his chin to clap him on the shoulder.“Cheeky, aren’t you. Why on earth were you stealing from the market place?”Darcel wasn’t sure how to answer. The most likely result of his misfortune was that he would be sent to one of the work camps, where he had no doubt his small stature would put him at a disadvantage among so many prisoners. “I was hungry, my lord.”“Have you no trade? No position?”“No, my lord.” He let his head hang in mock shame.“A street rat,” the man said over his shoulder to his guards. “And yet, when I was outnumbered three to one, he showed more bravery than half our soldiers.” The guards behind the man looked scandalized, but nodded just the same.Darcel could not help but grin.“Release him.”The order was carried out with swift obedience, and Darcel elbowed the thug who had abused him as he rose to his feet with easy grace.The man chuckled, then held out his hand. “I am Alasar.”Darcel rubbed his reddened wrists. “Darcel Arnitage, my lord.” He sketched a flamboyant bow. As if there were pride in his family name. His bitch of a mother had probably bedded a thief, possibly where Darcel had gotten his skills. His last name was most probably made up. Certainly he had never heard anyone else with it. But at this moment, he was free of that. This man knew nothing of his past, could not judge him by it.It was a strangely heady sensation.Alasar stepped closer, wrapping an arm around Darcel’s shoulders and drawing him into an exuberant hug. Darcel stiffened in shock at the intimate contact, then took a deep breath. The man smelled amazing.He stepped back and faced Darcel. That perfect brow creased for a moment in thought, then cleared abruptly. “You will protect me. Do me the honor of being one of my guards.”Darcel blinked, dazzled by the force of personality that seemed to light the entire room. “As you wish, my lord. I could guard you, I think.” The shocked look of the people around them made his amusement rise. From street thief to a guard of the magistrate. Not a bad day’s work. He could act the part, no doubt.“Come, my friend,” Alasar swept him along. “I will take care of you. You will take care of me. A new life awaits you.”As they left the hall and entered the anteroom, one of the guards announced them. “His Royal Highness, Alasar, Crown Prince of Rais.”Darcel nearly stumbled. He turned to look at his new…employer? Friend? The Crown Prince of Rais was an almost mythical figure to someone of Darcel’s position. No wonder his behavior had scandalized the prince’s entourage. “My lord, I apologize. I had no idea…” Alasar grinned at him. “You can apologize after lunch. And a bath.” Bright and beautiful, privilege dripping from his very pores, he was every inch the prince they named him.“After all this time, this pain, you still worship him. While he has left you as nothing but entertainment for his guards?”He provided little entertainment to his jailors these days. The spectacle of his grief and pain, so prevalent in the early days, had long since faded into motionless acceptance, not worthy of viewing.It was possible most days to believe that he was utterly alone, not a soul within range.Perhaps he was.He could not see downward from his window. Darcel knew nothing of what occurred within the fortress that held him. For all he knew there might be only one or two men within the entire complex.They must rotate the guards, for the men who brought food or came in to sate their lusts upon him or beat him, whatever their pleasure, never seemed to stay the same for very long.Even their tortures had lessened in the last year as his body wasted away and he no longer fought their depredations. Or perhaps it was the open sores that had started appearing on his skin. He did not blame them. He would not have wanted to touch the creature he had become, either.The demon remained mercifully silent, but the ever-present torment pulled at him again, dragging him back to the hell of remembering what he could never have…