June 17, 2024

Cool title goes here

Chapter One

The sky above the city was on fire. It was the perfect opportunity to strike.

“C’mon,” Dariel whisper-hushed to his friend as they made their way down one of the less crowded alleys that ran parallel to Main Street.

Benjamin was dragging his feet. To some degree, his hesitance was understandable. Ben rarely came into the city, and he’d never stolen from anyone.

Still, Dariel’s patience was limited. The show would start any minute now, and they needed to be *there* when it did.

“We’ll never get another chance like this.” He dragged his friend forward. “No one will even look at us.”

“Did you see that vending machine?” Ben pointed behind them.

“What vending machine?” Dariel’s eyes weren’t pointed behind; he was scanning the alley in front of them where it opened up onto a larger road. People were passing by in small groups, all heading toward the same destination. The old basketball court near the park. If Aunt Marsh was right, a giant pyre had been set up there, waiting to be lit.

Already, the air smelled like ash, saturated with soot from the fires that had been burning all over the city since the early morning. They’d been able to see the smoke even back home, in their settlement in the mountains.

“The vending machine was selling blood.” Ben grew pale around the nose.

Dariel waved him off. “It’s not real blood.”

“It said 100% mortal,” Ben insisted.

“That only describes the taste. It’s still not real.” Dariel’s stomach churned. He knew the stuff in the vending machines wasn’t real. The bottles were cheap artificial snacks to tide a hungry vampire over to their next lunch break—but he really didn’t need to be reminded how coveted ‘100% mortal’ blood was.

The kind of blood that pulsed through his veins, loud in his ears now, as they reached the end of the alley.

“Think about it,” he made himself say. “If they had blood like that, they wouldn’t sell it for cheap. Vamps and mages would be fighting over it.” He kept his voice low so their conversation wouldn’t be heard by any of the passersbies. 

Guaranteed, none of *those* were mortals.

This fact was made obvious by the wings on most of their backs.

This city was under dragon rule, and most of its citizens were of the scaly variety.

A couple of tall young men walked in front of Dariel. They might have looked human, if not for the pairs of scarlet wings folded neatly against their backs—and their tails. There were those too.

Dariel hated those tails. He knew they were strong enough to trap him if they wound around his leg, strong enough to swipe him off his feet too. It wasn’t fair. Dragons were already more muscular, and they could fly. Why did they need tails as well?

Just to make sure that Dariel would never win in a fight against one of these creatures, no matter how dirty or how clever he played?

Good thing, then, that he knew better than to get into a fight. That he knew better than to let himself be detected.

Without thought, one of his hands went to his ear. His camouflage[ was still in place. Good.

“I’m jealous,” Ben said, noting the motion of Dariel’s hand. “You’ve got it easy with those ears. This stupid thing only works half the time.” He rapped his knuckles against a small device half-hidden up his sleeve. When it wasn’t acting up, it shot small flames up into the air with the right touch. Ben could use it to fool people into thinking that he was a low level mage. Someone who’d been blessed with a rather small amount of magic. He wouldn’t impress anyone, but he also wouldn’t pique anyone’s interest.

Dariel didn’t have to fall back on technology to pass. He’d inherited a set of well-crafted pointy ears from his late father. At a quick glance, they made him look like a dark elf in combination with his skin color. Granted, his dad had been a shade darker than him, but most people tried not to look too closely at a dark elf. Thank the stars.

“You’ll be okay,” he said to Ben. “Everyone will be too distracted to pay attention to your scrawny ass.”

Ben huffed. “Like you’re any less scrawny than me.”

Dariel shrugged. Compared to the dragons around them, they were both scrawny as hell.

The dragons didn’t go to any efforts of hiding their physique either. At the most, they wore scraps of thin fabric that covered nothing more than their genitals. Some cultural bullshit. Dariel didn’t really understand it.

“Stick close to me.” Dariel took his friend by the arm. Together, they made their way toward the entrance of the basketball court.

As expected, the court was packed with people. Not only dragons, either. This event had drawn citizens of all races out of their houses. A young girl with cat ears bounced back and forth on her feet to Dariel’s left, and an old man with dark feathers in his hair muttered curses under his breath to his right. A group of men and women in robes pushed their way through the crowd and closer to the pyre. Mages, probably.

Dariel’s heart pounded in his ears.

He was no stranger to sneaking into the city and taking in the sights, but he liked to keep his distance, normally.

Ben was right; entering the belly of the beasts like this was insanity.

If anyone looked too closely, if anyone discovered their true nature…

They were done for.

Their blood and organs would be fought over at the auction house before the sun set.

He pretended to be brave so Ben wouldn’t shit his pants, but he needed a moment to remind himself why he’d ever thought coming here would be a good idea.

Because his community was hurting. The community that had taken him in and sheltered him after his dad got caught. The community that had shown him nothing but love and kindness.

He’d do anything to help them. Even this.

And if he enjoyed the thrill, if he enjoyed *sticking it* to the paranormal freaks, that was only a tiny part of his motivation, really.

Nothing got his blood pumping like the knowledge that he was about to take something from the monsters who’d taken his family from him.

His jaw set, his fists clenched.

He could do this.

“Watch,” he whispered to Ben. “Any minute now. As soon as they’re distracted, we strike.” He nodded at a pair standing to their right. Robed women with generous purses. One of them already had silent tears streaming down her face.

“What if they try to track the coins? They have *magic.*”

“We’ll spend the money before they know it’s gone. Don’t worry so much.”

Ben didn’t seem convinced, but stopped arguing. He knew that they needed the cash just as much as Dariel did. It was *his* aunt they were doing this for, after all, to buy her the medicine she needed to stop coughing up her lungs.

“Such a shame, what’s happening to the royal family,” an old man murmured in front of them. Since he didn’t have any features that made him stand out visually, Dariel guessed that he was a shifter of some sort. If he’d had any magic of his own, he might have been able to tell what kind, but since he didn’t, he could only speculate.

“I hear the prince is ill as well,” an old lady to his side responded.

“The first prince.” The old man nodded. “Thank the heavens Prince Curren has been spared.”

“Thank the heavens,” the old lady repeated.

A hush settled over the crowd as movement registered in the corner of Dariel’s eye.

A group of winged man descended from the sky to hover above the pyre. Dragons, no doubt. Five of them. Two to either side of the royal prince.

Dariel sucked in a breath.

He’d seen images of Prince Curren in discarded newspapers and sometimes his face was displayed on a screen when he walked past, so he’d always known what the prince looked like.

Seeing him in real life, though?

That hit different.

The photographs and recordings didn’t do him justice. Not in the least. The pictures did a fine job of showing off his dark features, the handsome cut of his jaw, and the well defined lines of his muscles. They didn’t catch the fire in his eyes. They didn’t convey his *presence.* The way he made a crowd go silent with a single glance. Even Dariel felt like he was hardly allowed to breathe, and he didn’t count himself among the prince’s subjects.

The man didn’t wear any more clothing than his followers did. In fact, the only thing that covered his body was a thin loincloth, adorned with gold embroidery that complimented the amulet around his neck. Tattoos of black flames snaked their way up his arms, which were crossed in front of his chest as his powerful wings kept him in the air above his people.

He studied the crowd quietly before speaking, his expression grim. His voice carried effortlessly. “Today we mourn the loss of a great king.”

Ben tugged at Dariel’s arm, but Dariel shrugged him off. In the back of his mind, he knew this was the time to act, while everyone’s eyes were glued to their prince. The problem was, he couldn’t unglue his own eyes. He wanted to keep looking at Curren. More than that, he wanted to go *toward* him.

Yesterday, in the early morning, the king had died. Struck down by a disease he’d been fighting for years.

Dariel didn’t care about that. He had no reason to care about that.

If anything, he should be gloating at the dragons’ misfortune.

But it was as if Prince Curren’s grief at the loss of his father radiated out of him and infected Dariel. Suddenly, the king’s demise felt like tragedy. It felt as if the ground underneath Dariel’s feet wasn’t concrete but grass, as if he was kneeling in it, weeping at the sight of his own father’s body while the dampness of the earth seeped into his bones and settled there, making it impossible to move and get to safety.

Ben’s hand rested on Dariel’s shoulder, giving him nudge. A wake-up call.

But the prince wasn’t done speaking, and Dariel couldn’t turn away.

“With the light of these pyres, we shall guide my father’s spirit into the heavens,” he proclaimed. “That he may watch over us at Amadina’s side, guiding the hands of fortune in our favor. Whenever we gaze into a fire, may we be reminded of his light.”

The sound of sobbing filled Dariel’s ears. It was likely one of the women they were going to target, the one who’d been crying all along. This was his cue to act.

But Prince Curren was looking at him.

Not just in his general direction.

Straight at him.

Their eyes met, and heat flooded Dariel’s veins like hot lava.

What the fuck?

He wasn’t imagining this. The prince of dragons was staring at him. Somehow, Dariel had caught his attention.

Dariel cursed, even as the prince’s gaze made shivers run down his spine.

This was not good.

Not. Good.

In fact, this was fucking catastrophic.

What if the prince *knew*?

Except he couldn’t, and Dariel was panicking for no reason.

“Dare!” Ben hissed. “We gotta go.”

Go? Oh God, yes, they needed to leave.

He needed to get the hell away from the dragon prince.

Fortunately, Prince Curren turned away from him to face the pyre instead. The prince took a deep breath of air, and when he exhaled, it came out in the form of a fire ball, setting the wood before him ablaze, adding to the smoke already billowing over the city.

Dariel had seen dragons breathe fire a few times, but there was something special about the way the prince did it, as if the act was as natural as… well, breathing.

God, he had to tear his eyes away.

What was *wrong* with him?

Why did he not want to leave this place?

“C’mon,” Ben insisted. His friend was in near hysterics now.

Dariel couldn’t blame him; he was acting beyond strange, and staying here would be dangerous. Especially if he was right about the prince catching his eye, which he couldn’t be. Why the hell would Prince Curren take an interest in him?

“Time to bail,” Dariel agreed.

Still, it took everything in him to turn away from the pyre.

And from the dragon fanning the flames.

***

“What was that about?” Ben’s voice was still whiny, even though they’d put some distance between themselves and the old basketball court. “You didn’t do anything!”

“I’m sorry,” Dariel apologized, not for the first time. “I don’t know. My brain stopped working for some reason.” Attending the ceremony and stealing from the people there had been his idea. Why had he made his friend do all the dirty work?

“There isn’t too much in here.” Ben inspected the wallet he’d snatched from one of the mourners. He held it between his fingers as if it was alive and eight-legged. “You think it’ll be enough?”

“It’s gotta be.” Dariel took the wallet from his friend. “We’ll go to that drug store on Bellham’s street. They don’t ask too many questions there.”

“Isn’t that where the wolves live?”

“They won’t eat you.”

“You can’t promise me that.”

“If you want to go back home ahead of me, that’s fine.”

Ben’s shoulders squared. “Nah. I’ll come.”

“All right, then.” Dariel guided his friend to a street car station that would take them where they needed to go. With everyone gathered around the pyres, the stop wasn’t too busy, thank the stars. Still, Dariel and Ben kept to a corner by themselves, reading the fliers posted to the side of the glass wall that provided protection from wind and rain. A local tailor advertised his business being able to accommodate any ‘wings, tails, or other appendages of any size.’ A siren ‘in the prime of her youth’ offered singing lessons and vocal training. PETA asked people to stop slaying hydras for sport.

“I hope we don’t run into any hydras,” Ben commented.

“They don’t live in the mountains,” Dariel pointed out. “Worst we’ll have to deal with is bigfoot.”

“Bigfoot isn’t real.”

“People used to think dragons weren’t real.”

Ben rolled his eyes at him. “That’s different.” 

“Well, I wish none of them were real.”

Ben slumped back against the glass wall. “Agreed. Imagine how much easier life would be if nobody had magic.”

Dariel gave his friend a tired smile.

There was no point wishing for the impossible.

***

The drug store on Bellham street was run by an elderly woman who sniffed the air when he and Ben came in. “It’s that dark elf boy,” she murmured, as if to herself. “And someone new. Someone…” She sniffed again. “Why, he hardly smells like anything at all.”

Ben gulped.

Dariel nudged his friend’s side to remind him to be cool. “Ben’s a bit of a noob when it comes to magic,” he said. “Don’t tease him about it. Very fragile ego.”

“Oh, I would never tease someone about their lack of ability,” the woman said distractedly while she read something from a paper journal she had opened on the counter in front of her. “Anything special you two are looking for today?”

Dariel turned to Ben, who had taken a few steps to the side to study an array of glass jars, all containing different herbs and spices. Even through their containers, their scent filled the air. Something sweet and heavy at the same time. If Dariel closed his eyes, he might think he was in the middle of the woods rather than the middle of the city.

How the woman running this store smelled anything *other* than that, Dariel would never know. Shifter senses. Another unfair advantage these freaks had over him.

“You got the note?” Dariel asked Ben. Aunt Marsh had written down what they needed, which was good, because Dariel could never remember medical terms.

Ben pulled the piece of paper out of his robe’s pocket.] 

Dariel took it and handed it to the store owner. “Do you have it?”

The woman read the note slowly, then studied each of them in turn. “Can you pay?”

“I’ve always paid, haven’t I?” Dariel almost took offense to the question. Yes, he stole from the freaks where he could, but he’d never taken anything from this store without leaving adequate payment. His dad had taught him better than to burn the few bridges he’d built. A medicine supplier who didn’t ask why he needed the drugs—or where the money came from—was worth more than a few free pills.

“That you have,” the woman said.

Dariel took a peek at her name tag to remind himself what she liked to be called. As often as he’d come here, he had terrible memory for names. “Look, Mrs. Grace, we really need this, and we’ve got cash.” He opened the wallet they’d liberated from the weeping woman at the basketball court and placed every coin and every dollar bill on the counter. “You can have it all.”

Mrs. Grace counted the money, then handed two bills back to Dariel. “Get yourself and your friend something to eat.”

Part of Dariel wanted to protest being treated like a child, but he wasn’t going to refuse money when it was given to him. And they could always use more calories. Maybe on the way back home, he and Ben could swing by a different store and get a bag of beans or grains to take with them.

Mrs. Grace walked to a room in the back and returned with a small bottle of pills. “Tell your sick person to take two a day,” she instructed as she handed the bottle to Dariel. “And make sure to keep them warm. The nights are getting colder. Especially outside the city.”

“They’re not outside the city,” Dariel said, automatically.

Mrs. Grace’s lips curved. “You’ve got the smell of the mountain all over you, boys.” Dariel opened his mouth to defend himself, but before he could, the old lady went on. “I don’t know what business you have out there, but it’s none of mine. Take your medicine and hurry back home so you can be in bed before dark.”

Wise words. Dariel shut up and stuffed the bottle into his pocket.

“Thank you,” Ben said.

Dariel nodded his agreement, and the two left the store.

“How much do you think she knows?” Ben asked as they walked back to the street car stop.

“No clue.” Dariel didn’t want to think about it. He could only hope that *whatever* the old lady knew, she wasn’t going to tell anyone anything. Their settlement in the mountains was secret for a reason. Only mortals lived there; only mortals could know. If they were found out, all sorts of monsters would threaten their existence. Mages wanted their blood, hairs, nails and organs for their spells. Vampires wanted to eat them. Shifters wanted to turn them, and maybe also eat them.

Dariel wasn’t sure what dragons would want to do to them, but it couldn’t be good either. He could imagine being sold as a high-prized commodity, or being kept as a slave. Both of these thoughts made him shudder, but it was the second one that lingered on his mind.

He didn’t picture any random dragon as his new overlord and master.

He pictured the prince, Curren’s hand on the back of his neck, his grip possessive. 

A disturbing image.

More disturbing for the fact that it didn’t vanish, as if some part of his brain wanted to hold on to it.

Some part of his soul.


Chapter Two

The sun had almost set by the time Dariel and Ben made it back home. ‘Home’ was an abandoned camp ground, hidden from view by the large trees that surrounded it on all sides. All sides except the one bordering the stream that flowed down the mountain and provided them with fresh water every day. They didn’t have solid houses, but they had twenty old RVs that they shared between them, along with a couple of large tents that could be used as long as the winters did not get too cold.

Large rocks had been set up around the perimeter of the camp, each inscribed with a different rune. An ancient protection spell that shielded them from being seen by anyone flying over the camp. It was the single bit of magic in use by the people of this settlement, and they’d paid a high price to have it installed when they first founded their community. Ten gallons of blood and one human heart had bought them the spell and a binding oath of secrecy.

Dariel hadn’t been there to witness the ritual that day, so he didn’t know the particulars. Nobody wanted to talk about it anymore, and he had to respect that. He could see the pain in people’s expressions any time he broached the topic, which made him stop trying to get answers. These days, he was just grateful that they had a safe place to call their home. As safe as you could be in this world, anyway.

Aunt Marsh was the first to spot them when they got off the old bikes they used to make their way up the mountain trail. She sat on the steps to the RV she shared with Dariel, patching a hole in a shirt and muttering to herself about people being careless with their things. Noticing Ben and Dariel, she set the fabric aside and got up.

“You two were gone for hours!” Aunt Marsh shared Ben’s pale complexion, which only made the red in her cheeks stand out more when she got upset. Dariel called her aunt, but they weren’t really related. He wasn’t related to anyone here. Aunt Marsh didn’t care, though. She acted like a mother to everyone in the camp below her age. Since Dariel was only fourteen when he’d come here ten years ago, she’d instantly adopted him. Dariel was never going to call her mom, because he’d had a mother, once upon a time, but the term aunt worked well enough.

“We got the pills.” He pulled the bottle out of his pocket to show it to her.

“We also got beans,” Ben added, nodding to the bag he’d awkwardly tied to the back of his bike.

Aunt Marsh heaved a sigh. She wanted to be mad, because she’d been worried, but she couldn’t yell at them for getting necessary supplies. They’d had to put themselves in danger to get them, yes, but that was just life.

This time, Dariel had had a good reason for visiting the city.

Aunt Marsh took the pills from him. “I hope you were careful.”

“I know what I’m doing.” Dariel took the fake ear tips off. They always started to get itchy after an hour or so.

“Only because you keep sneaking out.” Aunt Marsh frowned at him. “You’re too old for me to tell you what to do, but you are too fascinated with that city.”

Dariel couldn’t deny that. He could stay in the mountains a week, a month, hell sometimes even two months, and be fine. Eventually, though, he always felt the pull to go back. He wanted to say that it was because he’d spent the first years of his life in the city, but that couldn’t be it. Those years hadn’t been fun, and they’d ended with the tragedy of his father’s death.

How could he claim to feel homesick for a place that had never been good to him?

He shrugged the problem off to ponder another day.

“I will bring these pills to Casey,” Aunt Marsh said. Before she turned away, she paused to rest a hand on Dariel’s shoulder. “You did a good thing today.” She looked to Ben. “You as well. Your mother will be so relieved when her sister feels better.”

Ben managed a smile.

Dariel patted his friend’s back. Usually he went by himself when he wanted to explore the city, but Ben had insisted on coming along this time, because it was for ‘his’ family. As if such boundaries existed in this community. Everyone took care of everyone else. They wouldn’t survive any other way. “You really grew some balls,” Dariel acknowledged his friend’s bravery.

Ben huffed a laugh. “I had to! What with you freezing up.”

Yeah, Dariel really didn’t want to be reminded of his blunder. “Let’s see if we can help with dinner preparations. It smells like grilled fish is on the menu.”

For a second or two, Ben looked as if he was going to dig into what had happened earlier, when the prince had appeared.

Fortunately, he let the matter drop. 

Which was good, because Dariel didn’t want to think about dragons anymore.

***

Hot breath fell against the back of his neck and stirred the fine hairs there. Strong arms wrapped around him from behind, holding him in place, keeping him safe, *owning* him. Dariel should have fought the grip, should have resisted this treatment, but his whole body trembled with need. Need for touch, for heat, for friction. For the man holding him.

He knew who it was without looking around, would have known without the deep voice whispering in his ear. “You’re mine, heart blood. Listen to your body.”

Dariel didn’t want to listen to his body. His body was betraying him, wanting things he didn’t want.

Things he would *never* want from a dragon.

Except the dragon’s hand moved to fondle Dariel’s balls, and his breath left him in a rush.

He was so fucking hard.

He made a sound he wasn’t proud of.

The dragon chuckled. A husky sound betraying his own desire. His hand moved up from Dariel’s balls, passed his dick without touching, dragged across his stomach and toward his chest, leaving a trail of heat in his wake. “You ruin me, Dariel.”

The way the prince said his name, every syllable clearly enunciated, made something in Dariel’s brain break. He loved the way that sounded, loved the way the dragon’s rumble in his ear sent shivers down his spine and straight down to his cock.

He wanted the prince’s hand there. No, it was more than a want. It was a goddamn need.

He couldn’t form the words, though, couldn’t ask for it.

His brain was fried, every one of his nerves on edge—and when the prince’s finger’s pinched his hard nipple, all he could do was cry out.

Holy fucking—

He woke up with the worst morning wood of his life. Made even worse by the fact that it wasn’t even morning. The windows of the RV were dark. How long had he even been asleep for?

Too long, clearly.

Every second he’d spent in that dream had been too long.

Burying his face in his pillow, he groaned.

Why was this happening to him?

Of all the stupid infatuations he could have…

Not that this was an infatuation.

It had simply been too long since he’d cleared the pipes, what with being cooped up with other people almost 24/7. He loved this community, but there was very little privacy to be had.

Rolling onto his back, he took a deep breath, then another. The air inside of the RV smelled like Aunt Marsh’s soap. She must have made a fresh batch earlier.

Dariel rubbed his face and climbed out of bed. He had the top bunk in the RV, and when he peeked into the bed below his, he noticed that it was empty.

A golden opportunity to take care of his business?

No, his aunt could be back any second, and he did not want to be caught with his pants down, jerking off to fantasies of dragons.

What was *wrong* with him?

Not the first time he was asking himself that question today.

He needed some fresh air and some cold water. That would clear his head.

When he stepped out of the RV, though, he found his aunt sitting by the stream, her feet in the water as she gazed up at the stars. “Can’t see anything tonight,” she remarked when he approached. “Too much smoke in the sky.”

Dariel wondered if the fires in the city were still burning. If people were still grieving. If Prince Curren was still—

Fuck no, no more thoughts of the dragon.

At least the darkness of the night hid his boner from his aunt. It was taking way too long to go down, and thoughts of princes were *not helping.*

He sat down by the stream and splashed water in his face. “Couldn’t sleep?” he asked, if only to talk about anything other than dragons.

Aunt Marsh shot him a glance. It was too dark to make out her expression, but her knowing smile was audible in her voice when she said, “You slept a little too well for me to sleep.”

Dariel’s face heated. “Did I say anything?”

If he had moaned Curren’s name, he would have to kill himself. No way to ever live that down.

“I wouldn’t call any noise you made speech.” Aunt Marsh laughed. “Don’t be so bothered by it. I was young once, you know. It’s natural.”

Dariel highly doubted that. Nothing about the dream he’d had was natural.

There was no way he could tell her that, though.

How could he explain something he didn’t understand himself?


Chapter Three

Curren was exhausted by the time he made it back to the castle. There was no other word for it. His wings felt like lead on his back, and his lungs felt as if they did not have another breath in them, much less one made of fire. He touched down on top of the castle tower. The landing area was large enough that a fully shifted dragon could have descended onto it without trouble. A relic of times passed. There were few dragons in the world now who could shift into their true forms. Curren had grown up with the tales of such dragons, but they had become exceedingly rare.

About as rare as sensing your mate in a crowd of people.

Curren struggled with that thought. What he’d felt earlier…

He must have been delusional.

It had been a rough day. A rough year, if he was being honest.

The scent of smoke and embers wafted into his nose as he inhaled, grounding him in reality. He was home. 

His men touched down beside him, all of them part of the castle guard.

Curren turned to them. “You are dismissed. Thank you for your service today.”

All of the men expressed their condolences to him once more before they approached the gate that led down into the castle. More guards were posted there. A formality as much as a precaution. This kingdom hadn’t been at war in decades, but you never knew who might try to sneak in.

“Your highness,” the guards by the gate greeted as Curren passed.

He nodded at them, too tired for niceties.

Unconsciously, he rubbed his left arm as he descended the torch-lit staircase that wound its way down to the castle halls. One of his younger cousins, Glendan, was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs. He was clutching a stack of documents in his hands.

Curren wanted nothing more than to set fire to the papers without even looking at them. After the day he’d had, how did Glen think it was at all appropriate to foist paperwork on him right now?

“This can’t wait,” Glen said, correctly interpreting the look on Curren’s face. “It’s the ice clan.”

“I will deal with it tomorrow.”

“But they’ve been calling all day to—”

“Tomorrow,” Curren repeated in a firmer tone of voice. If this had been about anything else, he might have found it in himself to do the work tonight, but the ice dragons had been a major pain in his ass for the past two days. Extended family. Nothing but trouble.

They could wait.

Glen’s lips drew into a thin line. Clearly, he wasn’t happy with the delay. Such a stickler for rules, that one. “You know they’re gonna blame *me.*”

“I take full responsibility.” It was about time he stepped up, wasn’t it? With his father dead… With the *king* dead…

Glen relented. “Fine. This is on you. Don’t come crying to me when Lady Mayve tears you a new one, oh great mighty prince.” He blew out a breath, and his shoulders loosened. When he didn’t put his ‘business’ face on, Glen still looked incredibly young with his bright eyes and his shining red scales, patches of which adorned his naked shoulders. He was only two years younger than Curren, but he’d never had the weight of the kingdom thrust upon him.

Curren didn’t begrudge his cousin his attitude. They weren’t only family; they were also friends. A bit of attitude was to be expected. “Anything else to report?” he asked.

“Nah. Go crash.” Glen studied Curren a little more closely. “You look like you need it.”

Curren had no doubt that his cousin was right about that. “I’ll see you in the morning.” He turned down the hall that led toward the royal family’s private chambers. Before he left, though, he took a second to tell Glen, “Thank you for holding down the fort while I was gone.”

*Always show your gratitude.* It was a lesson his father had drilled into him. A ruler was only ever as powerful as the people who decided to follow him. He needed to treat them well, in order to be treated well in return.

Glen’s lips curved. “Of course. Any time. Who knows, if you’re not careful, maybe I’ll steal the crown from you one day.”

Curren huffed a laugh. Glen didn’t want the crown.

Hell, Curren didn’t even want it.

He’d always thought the cursed thing would go to his brother. He’d been fine with that.

Turned out life had other plans, though.

“Have a good night,” Glen said.

Curren nodded, and finally made his way to his chambers.

***

The patch of heated coals that served as his bed had never seemed more inviting—and Curren had never been more glad that someone had decided to light it *for* him, though he would never have asked for that kind of favor. On most days, he was perfectly capable of heating his own bed.

Today was not most days.

He glanced toward the window and the balcony that overlooked the city. The fires he’d lit earlier still burned away, taking his wishes for his late father with them into the sky.

For years, he’d known that this day would come. He’d had time to prepare.

There was no excuse for him to feel as blindsided by everything as he did. He didn’t consider himself stupid or naive—so why did losing his father after years of illness still come as a shock to his system?

The moment he’d heard the news, he’d run to the king’s chamber, but it had been too late already.

Not that he could have *done* anything, if he’d been in time.

There wasn’t anything anyone could have done.

The knowledge didn’t soothe the pain, didn’t reach that ache deep inside of his chest that wanted to curse the world and everyone who lived in it for letting this happen. It was a childish sentiment. A weak man’s rage against fate.

Kings did not have time to mourn, and Curren would have to take that role soon.

Stepping closer to the window, he took in the scenery of the city by night. His city. Every lit window belonged to one of his people. People full of hopes and dreams and ambitions who needed him to get his shit together.

Slowly, his gaze wandered away from the city’s rooftops toward the mountains, barely visible by night. With all the smoke in the air, he couldn’t see them at all now. He didn’t need to see, though.

There was something there for him, in the mountains.

His instincts told him that. The ones that belonged to the beast residing just below his skin, out of sight, out of touch, but always there.

He’d felt the pull before, any time he caught a whiff of forest air, but it had always been a vague thing. Easily dismissed. Not so now.

Underneath the exhaustion of the day, underneath the grief he tried to stuff in a box and lock away, his beast was growing restless for reasons that had nothing to do with his father’s passing, and everything to do with the man who’d caught his gaze at the basketball court.

The dragon inside of him wanted to fly out to the mountains, find him, and drag him back to the castle. No protests allowed. His dragon wanted to claim, to possess, to own.

There was a reason he called it a beast.

Curren tore his gaze away from the window.

Fated mates were as rare as dragons who could shift. They existed, *had* existed, once upon a time. Curren had no doubt about that. He’d just never expected to experience that sudden flash of recognition himself, that longing of his soul to be reunited with his lost half.

When he closed his eyes, it felt as if he was missing one of his limbs and he’d lost it in the mountains.

How could that be when he’d felt perfectly complete just the day before?

Could he go *back* to feeling perfectly complete?

Not without meeting that man once more.

The knowledge settled in his guts like an indisputable fact of the universe. *Meeting* that man would not be enough. Now that there wasn’t anything distracting him, he couldn’t deny what was happening to him.

He remembered his beast’s desperation at watching his mate leave the basketball court. He’d ignored his instincts to follow, to *chase*, because he was a prince on official business and he couldn’t swoop into the crowd and take one of his subjects captive for no reason.

But he’d wanted to.

Fuck.

He’d really, really wanted to.

And he didn’t know what he’d do the next time he came across the other man.

He rubbed his face, took a deep breath and exhaled, and noticed something odd.

Four doors connected to his bedroom. One led outside, one led to his bathroom, one led to his personal hoard, and one led to his brother’s room. Light shone under that last door.

That was unusual.

There shouldn’t be anyone with Nevin at this hour.

Unless…

Could he hope?

He hadn’t caught his brother awake in two days. Not since this nightmare had started.

Cautiously, he opened the door to Nevin’s room.

His brother lay on his personal bed of coals, the way he always did, these days. The only change to the usual was that his eyes cracked open as Curren entered.

Curren dropped down on his knees next to his brother’s bed, a sigh of relief escaping him. “You’re up.”

“And you look like you shouldn’t be.”

Trust his brother to give him shit even when Nevin looked worse than him. Curren and Nevin were twins, but you could hardly tell now. Months of illness had etched deep lines into Nevin’s face, and the patches of red scales across his chest had lost their luster. The skin around his neck looked as if it had been inked to resemble a dark spider’s web. Tell-tale signs of the scarlet curse. The same disease that had befallen the king.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Nevin scolded. “I’m not dead yet.”

Yet being the operative word.

On a night like this, it was hard not to think like that.

“I lit the pyres today.”

Nevin studied him carefully. “Are you okay?”

The question made Curren want to laugh. Not in an amused way, more in that manic way that meant none of his emotions made any sense at all. “I’m so far from okay,” he admitted what he would never admit to anyone else.

Nevin would understand, and he wouldn’t judge. Most importantly, he wouldn’t expect Curren to act in a way befitting a prince, a future king.

For a brief moment, Nevin’s eyes closed. “Things are fucked. I’m sorry this is all on you now. If I could just…”

“Don’t,” Curren stopped him. “Let’s not talk about it.” He wasn’t gonna lie to his brother and tell him that things were fine. He also wasn’t going to make Nevin carry his burdens.

His twin studied him quietly before nodding. “I only wish there was something I could do.”

“You could get better.” Curren reached a hand out to touch the coals his brother rested on. Still warm. Good. Healthy dragons always ran hot. For them, sleeping on a heated surface was something done more out of comfort than anything else, but with Nevin’s magic compromised, the coals helped him keep his body temperature up.

“Doing my best,” Nevin promised.

“I know.”

The twins shared a moment of silence between them.

There was no known cure for the scarlet curse.

“The ice clan wants me to welcome them into the castle for a visit,” Curren said, to distract himself from heavier topics. “They say they want to pay their respects.”

Nevin gave a tired shake of his head. “If that was all, they would have been here today.”

“That’s what I’ve been thinking.”

“They’re like vipers. They strike when they think we’re weak.”

Curren’s jaw set. “I will not show them any weakness.”

Nevin glanced at Curren’s left arm. He didn’t have to speak for Curren to know what he was thinking. Curren had gotten his arms tattooed with dark flames that licked up his skin. Flames that cleverly hid the mark of infection. Hiding the signs didn’t make the disease go away, though. He wasn’t as badly off as Nevin, not by a long shot, but the scarlet curse worked in devious ways. The more magic he used, the worse he’d get.

Curren closed his hand around his lower arm. “They won’t find out.”

“Cur…”

“I’ll be careful.”

“Take care of yourself.” His brother’s voice sounded uncharacteristically sharp. “Promise me. You don’t want to end up in my place.”

“All right.” Curren held his hands up. “I promise.”

In reality, he would do whatever it took to keep his people safe. That was his role in life. His first priority.

“Good.” Nevin turned on his side and his eyes fell shut. “Don’t make me kick your ass.”

“As if you could.” Curren gave his twin a sad smile, touching his shoulder, his too-cold skin.

“I can always kick your ass,” Nevin murmured, but it was clear that he was running out of energy.

“I’ll see you in the morning.” Curren squeezed his brother’s shoulder, then rose.

He hadn’t even gotten to tell his brother about his fated mate. But what was there to talk about, really? As much as another part of him wanted to, he couldn’t go out and look for the man. What was the point? He was infected, and he couldn’t touch anyone without infecting *their* magic as well.

Fate was cruel.

But what else was new?


Curren had never spent much time in the restricted section of the library. When he was younger, he’d been told that it was no place for children. When he was old enough, his life had become too busy for him to waste his hours away with his nose stuck in the pages of old tomes.

With his father gone, though, this was the best place to turn to for advice.

Another upside?

Only very few people had access to these chambers. Many of the documents and scriptures kept here were older even than the castle itself, hailing from a time when dragons had been regarded as nothing more than myths by the general population of the world. Sadly, the life of secrecy Curren’s ancestors had been forced to lead also meant that there weren’t a lot of written records of those days—and what was there was not written in the plainest language.

Sitting at a small table in the back of the room, Curren sighed over a paragraph he’d been trying and failing to understand three times.

He could ask his royal advisors about this. There were wise dragons who would be happy to serve him.

Except this matter felt too personal to make it a matter of the court.

All Curren wanted to know was how likely it was that he’d truly sensed his fated mate in the crowd.

And what that meant for him.

He should have cast all those thoughts aside. The Gods knew he had more important business to worry about, but his instincts didn’t follow logic, and they kept him up at night.

“So this is where you’ve been hiding.”

Curren whirled around at the sound of his cousin’s voice. “How did you get in here?”

Glen smiled in a way that seemed to hint he didn’t want to give away his strategies.

Curren dragged the flat of his palm down his face. “Are you sleeping with my guards?”

“Only when they’re off duty.”

Curren shook his head at his cousin. Must be nice to have no responsibilities.

Must be nice to feel another’s touch.

Curren hadn’t had sex since he’d gotten infected. The risk of passing on the disease was too high. He thought back to the last time he’d gotten intimate with someone, not knowing it would be the last time. Immediately, his mind subbed out the young dragon he’d been with for the man he’d seen at the basketball court. Their gazes had only met for a moment, but his mate’s appearance had burned itself into his retinas. His warm eyes, his delicate features, his dark skin…

Curren longed to feel it beneath the tips of his fingers, trembling under the weight of his body, trapped in his hold.

He would never let go.

“What do you know about fated mates?” he mused out loud.

“What?” The question seemed to confuse Glen.

“There must be records in this library.” Curren pulled another book from a shelf. A thick leather-bound thing that promised knowledge with the title ‘Dragon Folk Through the Ages.’

“Is that what you’re looking for?”

Curren made a noncommittal noise. He’d tried to shake this thought, this feeling of missing another half of himself, but the more he pushed the sentiment down, the more restless the beast within him grew.

“I’ve heard stories about fated mates,” Glen said. “The same stories we’ve all heard, I guess. My mom says there’s been fewer and fewer of them since the Blessing.”

The Blessing. Short for ‘The Great Blessing of Magic.’ The words referred to that period in history when, finally, dragons and other magic wielders could stop hiding from humanity because humanity was dying.

The cause had been a disease, not unlike the one Curren was infected with. The great difference was that the historic disease had only struck people who didn’t have magic, thinning out the mortal population until they became unable to fight back against the paranormal crowd reclaiming the lands. The ones who remained mixed with shifters, with mages, until no child was born without the blessing of magic anymore.

*Almost* no child.

Curren knew there were still mortals in the world, but there were so few of them they might as well not exist at all—and they knew to stay hidden. Curren glanced at the books around him, considering how the tables had turned. Once it had been his ancestors trying to stay undetected.

“Do you think our mates used to be mortal?” he wondered. It was the only thing he could think of to explain why the Blessing would have changed things for them.

“They certainly weren’t dragons.” Glen tilted his head, as if thinking. “The great Goddess split our souls so we would never become arrogant enough to enslave other races. That’s the story, right? Every dragon has a part of their soul stuck in a being of lesser magic.”

“That’s only a story.”

Glen shrugged. “It’s what my mother taught me.”

Curren opened the leather-bound tome he’d taken from the shelf. Glen’s words sounded far-fetched. He was supposed to believe that his soul was split across two bodies?

That was insane.

But it would explain why he couldn’t eat, sleep or dream without thinking of a man he’d never spoken to. It would explain why this stranger felt like *his.*

Why Curren wanted to ditch all his business at court to go out and find him.

“My mother says we could shift if we found our mates,” Glen said, as if he’d only just remembered this detail.

Curren’s eyes snapped to his cousin. “Is that true?”

There were handful of dragons in the world who could shift. Had they claimed their mates?

If that was the case, it should be easy to confirm.

He needed to speak to his advisors.

“C’mon.” He motioned for his cousin to follow him outside the library. His plan was to go to the council room and get some facts. He had not expected to run into one of his advisors right outside the door.

“Your highness! Finally!” Sir Tavis seemed quite impatient. He was older than Curren by a number of years, and had been in the king’s service for as long as he could think. A strict man of principle, but not an unkind one.

“Oops.” Glen scratched the back of his neck. “Yeah, I forgot to tell our prince that you wanted to see him.”

Sir Tavis shot Glen a disbelieving look. “This is an urgent matter!”

“I’m sorry!”

“What’s the issue?” Curren cut to the point. No one would be helped by his advisor and his cousin arguing in the castle halls.

“It’s your aunt, your highness. Queen Mayve of the ice clan. She showed up at the castle gates with her consort, and she is demanding to see you.”

Curren suppressed a groan. He and Queen Mayve were related by marriage only. His uncle, his father’s brother, had married into the ice clan to strengthen the ties between their kingdoms. Originally, it had been Curren’s father who was supposed to marry a daughter of the ice clan, but he’d married a fae woman instead. Curren’s mother.

Queen Mayve had never forgiven him, or his children, for the slight.

And now that the king was dead, she was trying to walk all over Curren, it seemed.

“I never granted their request for a visit.”

“We could not leave them standing outside the gates,” Sir Tavis said. “Consider how that would have looked.”

Curren crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Where are they now?”

“We asked them to wait in the reception hall while we ready the guest chambers.”

Curren nodded. He had half a mind to go about his business and leave the ice queen waiting for the rest of the day, show her exactly what he thought of her attempt to disrespect his authority, but that would have been petty. Queen Mayve would never take him seriously if he acted like the child she thought he was.

“Tell her majesty that I will see her in the throne room.” That would send the right image.

“Of course.” Sir Tavis turned to leave when Curren stopped him.

“One thing,” he asked. “The dragons who can shift, do they have mates?”

His advisor seemed caught off guard by this question, but answered it nonetheless. “Most of them do, your highness, as far as I can recall. Perhaps all of them. A dragon’s power grows when he finds his fated mate. This is undisputed. Would you like me to look more deeply into this matter?”

  Curren waved him off, trying hard to hide his inner beast’s excitement at the thought of shifting, at unlocking his full potential, at claiming his *mate.*

“Please go tend to the queen,” he said. “I will be with you shortly.”

***

On principle, dragons did not wear a lot of clothing. As per their faith, any superfluous piece of garment created an unnecessary barrier between yourself and the great Goddess. Jewelry, however, was different, and special exceptions were made for pieces crafted from gold. Nothing caught the eye of the Goddess like the glimmer of gold.

It was one of the reasons dragons of old had often slept on piles of the stuff, in spite of the metal not being very comfortable.

The king had often worn special jewelry on days he felt he needed the Goddess’s guidance the most. His favorite pieces had been bracelets, worn around his upper and lower arms, connected with golden chains and beset with small rubies the color of his scales.

As his father’s successor, Curren had inherited those bracelets, and he wore them proudly as he strode through the throne room, past his aunt and straight toward the king’s seat.

Queen Mayve raised a thin eyebrow at him as he sat down. She wore jewelry too, only that she’d chosen sapphires to accent the golden rings on her fingers and the heavy bracelets around her wrists. With her silver wings and her cool gaze, she looked every bit the ice queen that she was.

Except that it was Curren who was sitting on a throne, and he hadn’t offered his aunt a seat.

“I remember you when you were a baby,” his aunt said. “And look at you now. Still playing dress up with your father’s things.”

“These are not my father’s anymore,” Curren said tonelessly. “I don’t think I have to remind you of that.”

“Of course not. My condolences. I understand things have been quite hard for your family. Such a tragedy.” Her features went through all the motions to make her words seem heartfelt, but her voice hadn’t gotten the memo. “We would have been here for the send-off, but it seems you were too busy to process the paperwork for our visit.”

What the queen failed to mention was that they hadn’t requested to visit until after the pyres had been lit. “A lack of proper documents doesn’t seem to stop you from gracing me with your presence,” Curren pointed out.

“We’re family. We can bend the rules a little in times of tragedy. Obviously, you’re overwhelmed with your new duties. Why else would you make family wait? Don’t worry, nephew. We’re here to set things right.”

Alarm bells went off in Curren’s mind.

His gaze sharpened. “What exactly do you mean by that?”

“No reason to look at me like that, dear. You know we have to settle the matter of succession.”

“There is nothing to settle. My father named me his heir.”

Queen Mayve smiled at him. Of all the reactions she could have had to his claim, her smile chilled him the most. “I seem to recall your father explicitly disowning you before the Gods after your birth.”

Yeah, Curren had really hoped she wouldn’t stoop so low as to bring that up.

An event that had happened over twenty years ago, when things had been vastly different, should have no bearings on his future. Yet here they were. “My father rescinded his decision.”

“Your father was ill.”

Curren’s lips curled in dismay. He had to stay polite, but his aunt was making that excruciatingly difficult. His father had never *wanted* to disown him in the first place, but following the laws of their kind, it was either that or killing him. Ironically, the law had been made so there would always be a clear heir to the throne. No wars of succession.

When he and his brother had been born as twins, his father had decided to let the Gods guide him in choosing his heir. When a dragon first breathed flames, it was said to be the sun’s breath coming out of his lungs, bestowing him with her blessing. Nevin had set things on fire long before Curren, so it had been Nevin who was named their father’s successor.

Their father had never treated Curren badly, though. He hadn’t loved him any less than his brother, and when he and Nevin had fallen sick, he’d made no secret of the fact that he wanted Curren to step up.

He might have been ill, but his mind had been clear.

“I understand you want to honor your father’s memory,” Queen Mayve said, “but we have to follow the wishes of the Gods.”

“Do you want my brother on the throne?” Curren’s asked acidly. He wanted to keep his emotions in check, but his aunt was not making that easy.

“Oh no, I would never put the poor boy through that in his condition, but if he can’t inherit the crown, and you’re not suitable, the next in line would be Prince Earnan.”

Curren huffed in disbelief. So that was her plan. Of course. She wanted her own son on the throne. Claim this kingdom for herself by uniting it with her own.

He was never going to let that happen.

He would go to war before he would hand the lands of the sun over to the ice clan.

“I am more than suitable to wear the crown.”

Queen Mayve gave him another smile, as if he was being a difficult child. “Of course, but we will have to test that. I have informed the Council of Eld of our situation. ”

Curren’s stomach dropped out. If the *council* considered him unsuitable to rule, he’d have to fight more than just the ice dragons to keep his kingdom. He took a deep breath, trying to keep his vision from tunneling. The council wouldn’t simply award the throne to Earnan. They wouldn’t. They were supposed to be *wise.*

“The council has thought deeply about this matter,” Queen Mayve said. “You are to measure yourself against my son in a series of tests to prove your aptitude as a leader of dragons. Lord Balfor himself will issue the challenges, should you accept.”

This was ridiculous. All of it. Why did he have to go through this to keep his kingdom? His people would be miserable under the ice dragons’ rule.

Looking at his aunt, though, he knew she would not let this matter go. She would never stop challenging his right to rule. She would convince other clans of his ineptitude. She would turn the council against him.

The only way to stop her would be to accept these challenges publicly—and to win them before the eyes of the council.

Unconsciously, his hand went to his left arm. Could he win without expending so much magic that he’d make himself sick?

Did he have a choice?

Inside of him, his beast stirred, reminding him of one surefire way to grow his powers.

His mate. He was out there somewhere.

Curren only needed to find him, claim him.

He shot his aunt a grim look. “I’ll have to announce this to my people.” He’d make a big production of this, draw a big crowd to the old basketball court.

His mate would come.

He knew it.


Chapter Five

Prince Curren had an announcement to make. It was all their old radio would talk about, recently. Dariel told Aunt Marsh to turn it down, but she claimed they needed to know what was going on in the city at all times.

She was probably right about that. Dariel didn’t want to hear it, though, didn’t want to hear anything about the prince.

It was bad enough that he couldn’t go a night without seeing the man in his dreams.

Sitting opposite Dariel in Aunt Marsh’s trailer, Ben moved his queen across the chess board with a wide grin. “Check mate. I win again.”

“Sure. Fine.” Dariel rubbed his face. Ben hadn’t even know how to play chess when Dariel had first arrived here. They hadn’t had a chess board either. The one they used for their games now was self-made. Together, they’d drawn black and white squares on a slab of wood that served as their board. Differently colored rocks and pebbles served as the game pieces. They’d used sharpies to put letters on them to keep them apart.

Like most things in their little settlement, it wasn’t great, but it worked.

“What’s bugging you?” Ben asked. “I’ve beat you three times in a row. You’re not letting me win, are you? It’s not fun if you don’t try.”

“Sorry. Just distracted.”

The radio was still crackling, and though it played some silly pop song now, Dariel couldn’t stop looking in its direction.

His friend caught on to his thought process. “You’re thinking about going into the city?”

‘Thinking’ about it was putting it mildly. In truth, Dariel was obsessing about the idea. “The prince is gonna show up at that old basketball court where you stole that witch’s purse.”

“Yeah, I remember. I also remember that you froze.”

“That won’t happen again.”

“We don’t need anything. Aunt Lydia is doing better.”

Dariel gave an unamused laugh at that. “We always need things.”

“Not anything that’s worth risking your life over.”

“You’re starting to sound like Aunt Marsh.”

Ben picked up their makeshift chess pieces, face in frowns. “It’s scary down there.”

“I’m not asking you to come with me.” In fact, Dariel didn’t want his friend to come along. In reality, he knew that Ben was right. Leaving the safety of their community for no good reason was dumb. If he needed to do something that stupid, he needed to do it without dragging anyone else down with him.

“Are you that curious was the prince has to say?” Ben asked. “You know they’ll say on the radio when it’s all over.”

Dariel wasn’t sure how to respond to that question. None of this was about hearing what the prince had to say—although Dariel certainly wanted to hear his voice again. Outside of his dreams. He wanted to see the man, in the real world.

Maybe if he did, then…

Dariel didn’t think another encounter would stop his obsession, but maybe it would help him understand. Right now, none of it made any sense. The dreams, the thoughts, the pure *need* to leave his home and find the dragon…

That was what was really driving him, wasn’t it?

But Dariel could hardly tell his friend that.

He wasn’t even willing to admit it to himself.

“It’ll be easy money,” he said instead. “It’s a golden opportunity.”

“That’s what you said last time.”

“And I was right, wasn’t I?”

Ben didn’t seem satisfied, but Ben didn’t know what it was like to be haunted by visions of a man he should hate with all his being. Ben didn’t know what it was like to be drawn to such a man without any reason.

No, this wasn’t Ben’s decision to make.

***

The crowd that gathered on the old court that night was even larger than the one that had come her to commemorate the king’s passing. That day, people had been spread across different pyre locations all over the city, but the basketball court was the prince’s only stop tonight.

Dariel struggled to see over the heads of the paranormal freaks around him, but it seemed that his highness had yet to make an appearance. Good. He wasn’t late. Even though he’d known he was gonna come here, he’d drawn his departure out until the last second, fighting with himself all the way. Now he was here, though, and he wasn’t gonna turn back before he’d set eyes on Prince Curren.

Something like a stage had been set up in the middle of the court, except that it was floating in mid-air, suspended by some sort of magic. Large torches had been erected on each side of it, lighting up the space. Two members of the royal guard were already there, looking down at the crowd.

Dariel thought he’d seen some more of them walking along the edges of the court, easily identified by their red armbands emblazoned with the royal family’s emblem.

There hadn’t been that many guards here last time. Did the prince require more security now?

It was hard to imagine a man like that requiring any security at all.

Whispers went through the crowd around Dariel. Hushed murmurs and rumors about ice dragons in the city. Nobody seemed pleased at the prospect, although Dariel heard at least one person snicker. An older lady with a bushy tail a few feet to his right. “A little competition serves those dragons right,” she said. “Always thinking they’re on top of the food chain.”

Dariel wasn’t sure who exactly was on the top of the food chain. He only knew *he* was on the bottom of it, which made him glad that nobody paid him any attention at all as he wiggled his way through the crowd, closer to the stage.

“There!” someone pointed at the sky at the same time that something *tugged* on the edge of Dariel’s mind. He would have looked up, even without the crowd telling him to do so.

Three dragons descended upon the stage. Two silver-winged ones whom Dariel didn’t recognize—and his prince.

Immediately, he scolded himself for thinking of the prince as ‘his’, but the thought was too immediate, too instinctive, for him to control. 

“Thank you all for gathering here today,” Prince Curren addressed the crowd. Again, he wasn’t using a microphone, but he didn’t seem to need one. The light of the torches flickered across his features as he spoke as if he controlled the flames as easily as he did his people. “I’m sure you have all recognized the lady by my side as her majesty Queen Mayve of the frost lands. She’s visiting us along with her son, Prince Earnan. Let us give them a warm welcome.”

Dariel’s skin heated in a flash as a dragon right in front of him threw his head back and shot fire toward the sky. A ‘warm welcome,’ indeed. More flames followed, along with a smattering of applause. The ice queen wasn’t loved here, Dariel knew that much, but a dragon never turned down an opportunity to show off the size of his fireball.

“Quite lovely,” the ice queen spoke. “I sense much potential in the people of this land.” She smiled, but her voice lacked any emotion. Her son remained quiet and stony-faced next to her. Dariel wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that he wasn’t allowed to have a voice, or an opinion of his own.

Nothing at all like *his* prince.

God, he really needed to stop thinking like that.

Inevitably, though, his gaze was drawn back to Prince Curren, and not only because the prince raised his voice to speak once more. “I want to be honest with the people of this kingdom,” he said. “The queen has challenged my claim to the throne after the king’s tragic passing.”

Stunned silence enveloped the crowd. It only lasted for a second or two, though, before their voices grew loud. “That’s ludicrous!” someone yelled. “Treason!” another threw in. “We ain’t no ice blocks,” a woman shouted.

“Please.” Prince Curren raised a hand to quiet his people. “There is no reason to be upset unless you doubt my ability to prove myself.”

That shut everyone up.

Most people were smart enough not to doubt the heir to the throne with the royal guard all around.

“Trust me.” Determination shone in the prince’s eyes. “I have no intention whatsoever to hand this kingdom over to my aunt.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t rule this kingdom,” Queen Mayve said, “it would go to my son.”

Prince Curren acknowledged her words, but didn’t look at her. Instead, his gaze searched the crowd. No, it didn’t ‘search’. The prince’s gaze zeroed in on Dariel without a moment’s hesitation.

The moment their eyes met, a jolt when through Dariel’s body.

The prince knew he was here. He recognized Dariel.

Whatever Dariel had felt the day of the king’s send-off, Prince Curren must have felt it too.

Dariel hadn’t imagined it.

The longer he held the dragon’s gaze, the more his attention seemed to consume him.

His body grew hot. The people around him faded into the background, as did the crowd, the court, and everything else. As far as Dariel was concerned, he and the prince might have been in a room by themselves—the way they were in his dreams.

His feet carried him forward. Only for him to bump into another dragon’s back. Obviously displeased, the dragon whirled around to glare at him. “Oy, watch it, dark elf.”

Dariel scrambled back.

“So sorry!”

Fuck it, what was wrong with him?

“You looking for a fight?” the dragon demanded. “I know your kind. You’re always looking to pick fights!”

Oh hell no. He was not going to win a fight against a dragon. “I’m not here to cause trouble!”

By now, their argument was making other people turn their heads.

Not good. Very not good. Dariel’s whole disguise depended on people not looking at him too closely. His fake ears weren’t going to fool anyone on close inspection. Especially if he couldn’t back them up with magic.

He should have listened to Ben. He should have stayed home.

“Is there a problem here?” a gruff voice made Dariel turn around. A member of the royal guard stood right behind him.

Holy shit, could his night get any worse?

“No problem!” he squeezed out through a throat that felt too tight for air.

“He was trying to start a fight,” the rude dragon accused.

“Is that so? Well, we can’t have that.” The guard grabbed Dariel’s arm, shooting adrenaline down his spine. “You’re coming with me.” He didn’t wait for Dariel’s protests before he started dragging him back through the crowd.

“Stop! I really didn’t do anything!” Try as he might, though, Dariel couldn’t wind his way out of the guard’s grip. Cold sweat collected on the back of his neck. Fucking dragons. If they detained him…

“Don’t worry,” the guard said. “It’s been made clear to me that I would lose my head if I hurt you.”

“What?” Had he heard that right? Dariel’s heart hammered so loudly in his ears, he couldn’t be sure.

“I am to take you back to the castle.”

The castle?

Dariel’s thoughts spiraled.

He’d definitely heard *that* right.

Still trying to free himself from the guard, he whirled around once more to look at the stage. Queen Mayve was speaking to the people, but the prince’s attention was focused on *him.*

Suddenly Dariel had no doubt who’d given the order to have him brought to the castle. Like a fly in a spider’s web, he’d been caught the moment he’d set foot on the basketball court, the moment the prince’s eyes had met his.

And just like a fly, he had no way out.


Chapter Six

Dariel had only ever seen the castle from the outside. He would have been happy for things to stay that way too. Mortals like him had no business wandering around a dragon’s castle. Behind these massive walls, mortals could never be anything other than prey.

That was exactly what Dariel had let himself become when he’d followed his impulses to venture down into the city that night. He should have known better.

The dragon must have done something to his mind. He must have used some kind of magic to make him act irrational, to make Dariel obsessed with him.

The question was why. 

Had the prince uncovered his secret from afar?

Could dragons do that? Sense secrets? Read minds?

Dariel’s dad had never mentioned anything like that when he’d taught him about the dangers of the city and its inhabitants. At least, he hadn’t said anything like that about dragons. He’d never have picked this city if dragons were mind readers.

With his eyes, Dariel searched the room he’d been locked in.

It didn’t matter why he was here.

What mattered was finding an exit.

He needed to get out of here. Preferably before the prince came to see him, because he *would* come for him. Of that, Dariel had no doubt.

He just didn’t know how he’d survive that confrontation.

It was one thing to admire the man from afar, but to be trapped in a room with him? He couldn’t handle that. No way.

And what the fuck would the prince of dragons even want with him?

It couldn’t be what his dreams suggested.

Calm down, he told himself. Think. Find a way out.

He was in a large room, with floor to ceiling book shelves, cabinets that seemed to hold potions in every color of the rainbow and a desk that could have seated four people. It was nothing like the cramped space he shared with Aunt Marsh. Three RVs could have fit in here comfortably.

Three RVs or one shifted dragon.

The thought made a shiver go down Dariel’s spine. The prince couldn’t shift. He was sure of that. Fairly sure, anyway. Something like that would have been big news. The kind of news that reached them even in their little settlement.

Dariel took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of burned coals. There was a large patch of the stuff on the ground, almost as if something had been burned there. Was that how dragons prepared their food? It didn’t matter. The coals were of no use to him.

The doors were more interesting.

There were three of them in total, not counting the one he’d come in through. That was one locked, he’d already tried. The door to his left was locked as well, and so was the next one he tried, but the third opened. Dariel’s heart skipped a beat—until he found himself in a bathroom.

Calling it a bathroom was an understatement. ‘Indoor pool’ came closer to the truth of the matter. Dariel could have swum laps in it. Steam rose from the surface of the water, fogging Dariel’s view. Obviously, the pool was heated.

Who the hell had their own private heated pool?

Dariel stared at his reflection in the water as realization dawned on him. He hadn’t been locked in a random room until the prince had time to see him.

He’d been locked in the prince’s private chambers.

Now he *really* needed to get out of here.

Except it was already too late.

Even without turning around, he sensed that the air in the room had shifted. A foreign presence brushing up against his own. No, not foreign.

Too familiar for comfort.

“You’re welcome to take a bath, but it’s customary to disrobe before doing so.” Prince Curren’s voice.

Dariel swallowed hard. “I’m not taking my clothes off.” No. Fucking. Way.

“Never?”

Dariel turned around to face the prince.

Big mistake.

Immediately, he was caught in the prince’s fiery gaze, and the heat in his eyes burned him to his core. He hadn’t taken his clothes off, but he might as well have, for how naked he felt around this dragon. “Why the fuck am I here?” he demanded.

“Because you’re mine.”

Mine? What was that supposed to mean?

Prince Curren had delivered the words with such absolute certainty, and yet… Dariel didn’t want to believe them. “I’m no one’s property.”

“No, you are not my property. You are my treasure. My mate.” The prince came a step closer. Dariel wanted to back away, but he couldn’t. He had the pool to his back, and he didn’t want to take a plunge.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Dariel wasn’t anyone’s mate. The dragon must be mistaking him for someone else, someone magic. Still, Dariel couldn’t tear his gaze away from the prince’s. His eyes fascinated him. The way fire seemed to burn just behind his dark pupils. This was not a man who’d easily let go of his convictions.

This was not a man who’d easily let go of *anything*.

“Let me look at you.” The prince studied Dariel’s face, focused on his ears. “You’re not a dark elf.”

Well, busted. Not that Dariel had expected his disguise to hold. His hand went to the fake tip of his left ear. “I’m not anything.”

“Not anything…” Prince Curren scratched his chin, a thoughtful look on his face. His eyes widened a fraction as realization dawned. “You’re mortal.”

Dariel grimaced.

This was a nightmare come true.

The prince scoffed to himself. “You don’t have any magic at all.” For some reason, he seemed amused by this. No, not amused. Relieved. But why would he be relieved? Because his captive couldn’t fight back with magic?

Dariel’s fists clenched. “I don’t need magic.”

Oh, who was he kidding?

He couldn’t fight Prince Curren. Even if they’d both lacked any magic, the dragon was still in a lot better shape than him. What little fabric the prince wore didn’t cover his pecs, or his abs, or even his muscular thighs.

Shit.

Dariel shouldn’t look there.

He flinched when the prince’s thumb touched his chin, tilting his head up.

“Like what you see?” the prince asked with a smug smile. “It’s all yours.”

Fuck no, it was not. It couldn’t be. Dariel was *mortal*. He didn’t have any business with dragons. He didn’t belong here and he most assuredly didn’t belong with Prince Curren.

Even if certain parts of his body screamed otherwise.

He jerked his chin away, glaring at the dragon. “You’ve got the wrong guy.”

“Ah. Is that so?” The prince was definitely amused now. “What’s your name, wrong guy?”

“Dariel.”

“Dariel…” the prince repeated, and Dariel’s throat tightened. The way the dragon said his name… it sounded exactly the same way it had in his dreams. “That’s a curious name for a mortal.”

“What do you know about mortals?” Dariel spat, because he wasn’t about to tell his captor about how his dad had chosen an elven name for him to make it easier for them to blend in.

“Not much, I have to admit. Are mortals able to swim?”

“Of course we can swim!” Wrong answer. Dariel only realized his mistake when the prince smiled. “No, wait—” he tried, but it was too late. The prince’s hand shot out to push Dariel backward, and the next thing Dariel knew, water roared in his ears.

*Fuck!*

He sputtered, breaking through the surface. “You bastard!” he accused, wiping water from his eyes.

The strangest sound bubbled through the water in his ears. The prince was laughing. “You’re bold, mortal. No one dares to insult me.”

“Are you gonna have me executed?” Dariel made his way to the edge of the pool and hung on to it, watching the dragon. It was weird. He should apologize for insulting the prince. He should be scared for his life. Except he didn’t think that his prince would hurt him. He wanted to get out of this castle, and out of this situation…

But he wasn’t scared of the dragon.

“Don’t be silly.” Prince Curren sat by the pool, dangling his legs into the water mere inches away from Dariel. “I could never hurt you. It would be like hurting myself.”

“But pushing me into pools is fine?”

“Pushing you into pools is hilarious.” There was that smile again, making Dariel want to do something stupid, like positioning himself between the prince’s legs, like leaning up to brush their lips together and pulling the prince fully into the water with him. That kind of stupid. “Besides,” the prince said, “I had ulterior motives.”

“What kind of motives?”

“I doubt you’ll want to walk around in those clothes anymore.” The prince’s gaze seared through the wet fabric clinging to Dariel’s skin.

Ulterior motives indeed…

Obviously, this prince was not used to people saying no to him.

“You’re spoiled,” Dariel pointed out. “And delusional. I’d rather keep wearing these clothes than get naked in front of you.”

“Do as you please.” The prince rose from the pool as if Dariel’s refusal to play his game was all the same to him. “I can tell that you feel it, this pull between us. You’re going to give in eventually.”

“Never.” Dariel climbed out of the pool himself, dripping water on the stone floor. “I want to go home.”

“Where’s home? The mountains?” The prince glanced toward the window at the far back of the room.

Dariel tensed. How did the dragon know where he lived? Did he know about the others too?

No, he couldn’t.

No one could know.

The sacrifices they’d made to ensure their safety were too great for him to fuck everything up.

“I sensed you there,” the dragon explained. He walked back into the main room and Dariel followed, pondering his words. “If you left, I would find you,” the prince said before Dariel could voice the question.

“What if I asked you not to come after me?”

Prince Curren approached his desk and paused. “That’s not a request I can grant.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re mine.”

Those words again. The prince said them as if they explained, as if they *excused* everything. “Did no one ever tell you that if you love something, you need to let it go, and if it comes back, *then* it’s yours?”

The prince huffed a laugh. “No, indeed not.” He turned to face Dariel. “I can assure you, whoever said that was not a dragon.” His fingers reached out to touch Dariel’s cheek. “We guard our treasures with our lives.”  

Dariel wanted to break eye contact, but the prince’s gaze was too intense. There was no lie in his words. The dragon was convinced that Dariel was his, and he would not let go.

If Dariel left the castle, the prince would find him in the mountains.

Him and everyone else.

Which meant that, for the time being, Dariel had only one choice.

He had to stay.


Chapter Seven

For some dragons, keeping their inner beasts contained was a daily struggled. So far, Curren had thought himself blessed with exceptionally good self-control. He’d thought he’d never let his inner dragon dictate his actions, that such weaknesses were for lesser minds only.

Now that he had his fated mate in his bedroom, though?

He had to admit that he’d been arrogant.

It wasn’t that he had extremely good control of his beast.

It was that he’d never been faced with anything his beast truly wanted.

He’d never had to make his dragon accept a ‘No.’

Every minute that he didn’t grab Dariel and rip his clothes off was a hard-won victory in his fight with himself. It wouldn’t do, though, to scare the mortal. Curren didn’t know much about mortals, but he figured they must be fragile beings. How could they not be? Without magic…

Great Goddess, how hard had it been to control himself when he’d realized that his mate didn’t have magic? That Curren could *touch* him without running the risk of making him sick…

They were perfect for each other in all ways. How could Dariel not see that?

Maybe that was the downside to not being tuned in to the magic of the world. 

No matter.

In time, his mate would understand. He would give in. Curren could see the desire in the mortals eyes when their gazes met. He wasn’t mistaken about that. Dariel wanted him.

He would have him.

It was inevitable.

It was *fate.*

*Do it now,* his inner dragon demanded. *Take him, claim him, make him yours NOW.*

He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. He would not surrender to his baser instincts. Turning away from his mate, he faced his desk once more. He touched a few buttons on the side of the wood, and a screen appeared in the air above the desk. He’d dialed Glen’s number, and it was his cousin’s face that showed up on the screen a second later.

“Your highness?” Glen asked.

Curren positioned himself in front of the desk so that his mate could not be seen. “Run to the kitchens and tell them to roast one of the royal sheep. I want the meal brought up to my chambers.”

“The royal sheep? Are you sure? What’s the occasion?” 

“I am sure.”

“I don’t get it. Aren’t you dining with Queen Mayve and her brat tonight?”

“Are you going to question every one of my actions tonight? The meal is not for me.”

“Then who… Oh. The rumors are true? You brought someone back to the castle?”

“Go run to the kitchens, Glen.”

“Okay, okay. Sheesh.”

Curren pushed another button and the screen disappeared again. He faced his mate, who hovered in the corner furthest away from him, near the book shelves. “I hope you enjoy mutton.”

“I don’t need you to feed me.” Dariel kept his gaze fixed on the books, fighting with himself just as much as Curren did, but for other reasons. Reasons that eluded Curren, as yet.

“You do need me to feed you,” Curren insisted. Dariel still had all his clothes on, but even so, it was easy to tell that the man didn’t get enough food. “I don’t intend to poison you, so don’t worry.”

“I didn’t think you were gonna. If you wanted me to dead, there’d be far easier ways for you to get rid of me.”

“I don’t want to get rid of you.”

“Yeah…” Finally, Dariel turned around. “I realize that.” He licked his lips. “Are you going to have dinner with the queen?”

“I’m afraid so. She would grow suspicious if I refused to join her, and I’d rather keep your identity a secret from her. If she knew who you were…” Curren let the sentence drop. Envisioning what his aunt might do to Dariel made him too angry to speak. No, he could never let the queen anywhere near his mate.

“She’s dangerous?” Dariel asked.

“Very much so.” Curren left it at that. “Will you try to leave while I’m gone?”

Dariel averted his gaze. “Will you lock the door?”

“For your own safety.”

Dariel snorted. “Right, but I’m not a prisoner.”

“You’re not. You’re my mate.”

“Why do I get the feeling that’s worse?”

“Because you know I’m keeping you forever.” Curren strode toward his mate. He knew he should keep his distance if he wanted to stay in control, but his urge to be near his mate was greater than him. “You’re mine, heart blood, and I’ll take care of you.”

To his credit, Dariel didn’t try to move away. He only looked at Curren. “Heart blood?”

“It’s a term of endearment. You never heard it?” 

“No.”

“Would you like me to call your something else?” He cupped his mate’s chin, unable to keep his hands to himself.

“My name?” Dariel’s breath puffed against Curren’s skin as Curren ran the pad of his thumb over his lower lip. Still not moving, Dariel stared into Curren’s eyes. “What do you want me to call *you*?”

“Whatever you please.”

“Bastard?”

“I’ll have you know I wasn’t born out of wedlock, though why you humans care about that so much, I’ll never know.”

Dariel laughed. It was such a beautiful sound Curren wanted to cover the mortal’s lips with his own and take his laughter into himself—and he was a second away from taking what he wanted when Dariel took a step back to look around the room.

“Where will I sleep?” he asked. “Where do you sleep?”

Curren took a beat to screw his head back on straight, then he motioned to his bed of coals. “That is where I sleep.”

“You sleep on coals.” It was a flat statement more than a question, as if Dariel was adding this information to his internal list of things that were wrong with his world today.

“They’re quite comfortable when they’re warm.”

“I can’t sleep on hot coals. I’d get burned.”

“That is unfortunate.” It seemed Curren had been right to assume that mortals were fragile. “We have non-coal bedding in some of the guest chambers. I’ll have Glen arrange for some to be brought up.”

“Wouldn’t it be easier for me to sleep in one of the guest chambers instead?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Because I’m yours?”

“Finally you’re getting it.” Curren’s beast stretched out possessive claws inside of him. Dariel had phrased his words as a question, but still, hearing him say them made Curren want to wrap his tail around his leg and draw him closer.

For once, he did not resist his desires.

Dariel yelped as he was pulled against the prince’s chest and held there. Curren slung his arms around his mate’s back, breathing in his scent. Mountain air and wild flowers. Curren’s eyes closed. How long had it been since he’d been allowed to hold anyone?

His mate’s breath quickened and his heart pumped furiously in his chest. Curren heard the sound of it, sensed his mate’s arousal in his own blood. This was right. This was perfect.

And still, Dariel tried to wriggle out of his grip.

Curren tightened his tail around his leg. Not enough to restrict blood flow, but enough to keep him in place. “Don’t fight it,” he spoke into his mate’s ear, feeling the mortal shudder in his hold.

Dariel’s mouth opened—to protest, most likely. Curren didn’t give him the chance. He crushed their lips together and claimed his mate’s mouth the way he wanted to claim the rest of his body, his soul.

Dariel gasped into the kiss, his fingers digging into Curren’s hips as their tongues met. It was obvious that he wanted this as much as Curren did, that his need was just as great. He could tell by the way his head tilted to give him better access, by the way his breath hitched and his skin flushed.

Curren wanted to listen to his dragon, wanted to rip his mate’s clothes off and take him.

But he knew better than to force himself on someone.

Gathering all his strength, he ripped himself away from his mate, leaving Dariel to stare at him in a breathless daze.

“You’ll ask me for this,” Curren said. “Sooner or later, you’ll ask me for this, and *that’s* when you’ll get it.”

Dariel’s brows furrowed. “I’ll never ask.”

He seemed so sure of his words too. It made Curren want to smile. “You will. Trust me.”

“Why would I trust you? You’re holding me here as your captive.”

“You’re not my captive, you’re my mate.” Really, how often would Curren have to explain that?

“Is there a difference?”

“Oh yes. I don’t kiss my captives.” Curren brushed his thumb over Dariel’s lips once more. Such nice lips they were. He would have liked to stay in and admire them all evening. Sadly, the role of prince came with duties to fulfill. “I have a dinner to attend,” he said, stepping back. “I will see you after.”

“Can’t wait.” The mortal’s tone was sardonic.

Curren didn’t let that bother him.

His mate would come around eventually.

***

He arrived a full ten minutes late to dinner. Not because he’d delayed in leaving his chambers, but because he’d taken his time getting to the dining hall, checking in with his servants, stopping to talk to a guard here and there. It was important to keep a good rapport with the people around him.

If he made Queen Mayve wait because of it, well… that was only a beneficial side-effect.

The long dining hall table seated only a few people tonight. Queen Mayve, Prince Earnan, Glen’s parents [find names], as well as three of Curren’s closest advisors. They’d been his late father’s closest advisors, to be exact, but Curren saw no reason to replace them.

Everyone but the queen rose when Curren stepped into the hall. That was, Prince Earnan tried to rise, but was quickly pushed back down by his mother. “We don’t do that,” she hissed at him, only to smile sweetly at Curren not a second later.

Curren smiled back, although his smile was just as fake. “I hope I did not keep you waiting too long.”

“Oh no, it’s quite understandable that your new tasks are proving too heavy for you to handle, nephew.”

“Thank you for your concern, unnecessary as it is. It was other matters that made me late.”

“Is that so?”

“Indeed it is.” Curren offered no further explanation. He might not have been trained to be a proper diplomat, seeing as no one had expected him to inherit the throne until recently, but he’d watched his father often enough to know how to deal with unpleasant visitors. He owed his aunt no justification for his actions.

Not long after he’d sat down, his staff appeared to serve dinner. Steak was on the menu tonight, cooked to perfection by his chef. He’d rarely seen a dragon with better control of his flames. The man could roast any piece of meat into a delicious meal in ten seconds flat.

What a shame that such good food had to be spoiled with such bad company.

To Curren’s right, Sir Tavis spoke up. “Her majesty has informed us that lord Balfor is to arrive tomorrow in the afternoon for the first challenge to test his highness and Prince Earnan.”

Curren chewed on his meat, then swallowed. Things were moving faster than he’d anticipated. No matter, though. He’d handle it. “Has her majesty also informed us what that challenge is going to be?” He replied to his advisor, but he looked toward the queen.

“Don’t be silly, nephew,” she tutted. “Of course I won’t know before you do. That would hardly be fair now, would it?”

As if the queen cared about fairness.

If she did, she wouldn’t be here.

Curren knew better than to voice that thought, though. “When will we know?” he asked instead.

“Lord Balfor will tell you what you have to do,” the queen said. “You won’t have to worry about anything else.”

“Of course not.” Curren turned back to his steak. What he wouldn’t give to know the challenge ahead of time… The closer the time of the test came, the more he wished he had never agreed to this foolishness to begin with. His father would have found a different way to deal with this situation, a better way.

His father was gone, though, and Curren was left to deal with the mess of his passing.

And he would not be bullied into giving up.

He’d meant what he’d said to Dariel. He’d guard his treasures with his life, and that included this kingdom.


Chapter Eight

It wasn’t long after the prince left that someone else opened the door to the bedroom. The coal room, Dariel should call it, since there wasn’t an actual bed anywhere to be seen.

The door was only open for a short moment, but long enough for Dariel to catch a peek of the guards stationed outside. He should have figured. Even if he found some way around the lock, he’d still have guards to deal with. And yet the prince insisted he was not a captive.

Someone should gift his royal highness a dictionary.

Not Dariel, though. He wasn’t gonna make his captor any gifts.

The dragon who entered the coal room bore some resemblance to Prince Curren. Enough to suggest that they might be family, though this newcomer’s hair was red, and his face didn’t look like he was scowling half the time he was awake.

“Hello, I’m Glendan of the Fire Wings,” he introduced himself. “And I suppose you must be the dark elf who’s attracted my cousin’s interest. He never told me your name.”

“Dariel.”

“Nice to meet you, Dariel.” Glendan’s smile looked genuine. “It’s been a long time since our prince has taken anyone back to his chambers.”

Dariel didn’t want to know. Seriously. Prince Curren’s love life was none of his business.

Except for the fact that the prince obviously wanted to fuck him.

And that Dariel kind of wanted to fuck him back.

God…

“You look uncomfortable,” Glendan noted. “Are you hungry? I’ve got some food for you.” He lifted a bowl that he carried in his hands.

The smell of cooked meat drifted into Dariel’s nose. “Mutton?” he asked, remembering the prince’s earlier conversation. It was this man he’d called, wasn’t it?

“Yes! And not just any mutton either. The royal family tends to these sheep personally. The prince wouldn’t have one roasted without a good reason. He didn’t even offer one to Queen Mayve. They’re eating beef down in the dining hall.”

Dariel didn’t know what to make of that. It felt as though he was being offered some sacred animal.

Or maybe Glendan was just making this whole thing up. To be honest, Dariel found it hard to picture the prince ‘tending to sheep.’ He’d look ridiculous in a farmer’s getup.

“I’m not particularly hungry,” he said, even though that was a lie. The truth was that he’d grown so accustomed to being hungry that he’d learned to ignore the feeling. Whatever the prince was serving him, he didn’t need it.

“Really? You’re gonna say no to royal mutton?” Glendan looked as if he’d just turned down a million dollars for no reason.

“You can have it,” Dariel offered.

Glendan’s eyes widened. “I couldn’t.”

“You can just leave it here, then.”

“But you’re not gonna eat it?”

Dariel shrugged. The food did smell like it would taste delicious, but he’d said no to way more tempting propositions today. What was the taste of meat compared to the taste of Prince Curren’s lips?

The moment his thoughts went there, his body heated.

Fuck this.

He didn’t need to get himself riled up now. Especially not with someone else in the room.

Thankfully, Glendan didn’t seem to have any idea what was going on with Dariel. “Please try to eat.” He set the bowl down on the desk. “If you don’t, my cousin will find a way to make it my fault.”

“Would you be punished?” Dariel didn’t want to get Glendan in trouble, which was stupid. What should he care what happened to a dragon? Especially if said dragon was working with his captor.

Fortunately, Glendan only laughed. “Don’t worry, the prince would never hurt me. He’s not that kind of man. I’d get a very stern talking to, though.”

That was… good to hear?

In truth, Dariel hadn’t *thought* that Prince Curren was that kind of man, but it was nice to have his assumptions confirmed, even when his assumptions were based on nothing. He didn’t know the prince, no matter how familiar the dragon felt to his heart.

Then again, he couldn’t say that his assumptions were based entirely on nothing.

The prince clearly wanted Dariel, and he could have taken Dariel. Dariel wouldn’t have had any way to stop him, not truly.

In his memory, that strong tail was still wrapped around his leg, keeping him pressed against the prince’s firm body. He grew hot, once more, from the inside out.

The prince could easily have ripped Dariel’s clothes off, could easily have forced Dariel’s legs apart.

In the deepest, darkest corner of his mind, Dariel had wanted him to.

But the prince hadn’t.

He wanted Dariel to ‘ask for it.’

Dariel huffed to himself. As if he was ever gonna ask a dragon to fuck him.

“Something funny?” Glendan asked.

“No, it’s nothing.”

Glendan eyed Dariel, then he eyed the bowl of food on the desk with something almost like longing in his gaze, before he finally made his way back to the door. “I’ll bring some bedding up so you and the prince can be comfortable.”

He left before Dariel could tell him that he’d rather sleep on the floor than in a bed with the prince.

Sadly, he didn’t think the prince would give him much choice in the matter.

***

Dariel had expected the prince to return right after dinner, but hours passed before the dragon came back. He looked worn out when he did. He wasn’t yawning, but Dariel sensed his exhaustion in the air between them.

“Did something happen?” he asked before he remembered that it was none of his business what the dragon got up to.

“Nothing to worry about,” Prince Curren waved him off, striding into the room. “Politics. My advisors kept me to discuss a matter concerning the farms to the west. Someone keeps burning their crops.”

“Why would anyone do that?” In Dariel’s mind, destroying food like that seemed close to sacrilege.

The prince walked over to his liquor cabinet and uncorked one of the colorful bottles, a bright blue one. “The farms are owned by a wolf who recently married a vampire,” he said, as if this explained everything.

It explained nothing to Dariel. “They’re against wolf/vampire marriage?”

Prince Curren poured himself a drink and paused to study Dariel. “Intermarriage is not illegal in this kingdom, but many people wish it were. Mind you, most of those voices were quieted when my father took a fae for his bride.” A grim smile showed on the prince’s face. “I can’t pretend that didn’t create problems in the aftermath. If Queen Mayve has supporters here, it’s because some of my people believe that my brother and I shouldn’t exist. You mean to tell me you’ve never heard these sentiments expressed?”

Dariel hadn’t, but he couldn’t say that those thoughts felt alien to him. “Maybe we should all stick to our own kind.”

“What makes you believe that?”

“My people and your people aren’t compatible.” Dariel knew that it had been a terrible disease that claimed so many mortal lives that it had been feasible for paranormals to take over their world. His dad had told him the stories of days past. His dad had also told him that many of the surviving mortals had interbred with shifters and mages and other magical beings, producing paranormal offspring.

If they hadn’t done that, there wouldn’t be so few of them left now.

They’d be stronger, with higher numbers.

And Dariel would be able to tell his community that he liked men more than women. His sexual leanings wouldn’t matter so much if everyone didn’t expect him to father children for the greater good of humankind.

He’d made his peace with all of it. Of course he had. How could he go on, if he hadn’t? 

But that didn’t mean he was never bitter about his circumstances.

Or that he didn’t wish for things to be different.

Prince Curren sipped at his drink. “Not compatible? I wouldn’t say that.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“So, educate me.” The prince took another glass out of the cabinet and offered it to Dariel. “Would you like any?”

Dariel shook his head.

“Water, then,” the prince decided. He filled a glass and brought it over to Dariel, but not before stopping by his desk first to pick up the bowl of mutton. “You’ll eat this too. Sit.” The dragon motioned to an arm chair by the wall, near where Glendan had put down their new ‘bedding.’

Dariel had expected a thin mattress and a blanket. What he’d gotten looked more like it was supposed to fit three people. A thick mattress, three blankets and half a dozen pillows. Dariel had to admit, it looked comfortable. He still didn’t wanna sleep in it with the prince, though.

And he didn’t want the food either.

If his dad could see him now, he’d be in for a scolding about refusing perfectly good food. Dariel would have agreed with him too, if the situation was any different. If he wasn’t Prince Curren’s prisoner. He didn’t want to make the dragon think he’d be a good little captive who’d follow any order.

No, he needed to show the prince that he wasn’t in control of Dariel.

So he sat, and he crossed his arms in front of himself, but he didn’t take the bowl when the prince offered it.

“You don’t like mutton?” the prince asked.

“I don’t like being held somewhere against my will.”

“Are you saying that you do not want to be with me? Because I won’t believe you.”

Dariel shook his head. “You don’t get it. You know why? Because you don’t see me as a person. You’re like all the other paranormal freaks. Mortal lives hold no value to you.”

The prince studied him for a long moment, following those words. “Is that how you see us?”

“I’m not wrong,” Dariel insisted. “The last time one of us was discovered, he was sold for parts.”

“I would never sell you.” The dragon sounded insulted at the insinuation.

“You’re missing the point.”

“Tell me, Dariel, would I care if you ate if I didn’t care about you?”

“I suppose you’ll want your property in working condition.”

Prince Curren’s jaw set. “Don’t speak of yourself that way.”

“Is that an order?”

“I doubt you would listen to it if it was.”

Finally, the prince was starting to understand. Dariel wouldn’t take orders from him, or any other paranormal creature. He had an idea that might work, though. While he’d been stuck in this room by himself, waiting for his dragon captor to come back, he’d discovered something interesting on one of the shelves between the locked doors. A beautiful chess board made entirely of glass, along with all the necessary pieces.

“You could play me for it.” He pointed at the board. “I’ll eat if you win.”

The prince’s eyes followed where he was pointing. “What do you…? Oh. Of course. It’s a game.” He said the last part as if he’d needed to remind himself of this.

“You don’t play?”

“I never have.”

That was so dumb. Why own something as nice as that if you didn’t even use it?

“All right,” Prince Curren said as if he needed a quick change of topic. “Let’s strike a deal instead.”

“A deal?”

“What kind of prince would I be if I didn’t know how to negotiate?” For the first time that night, the dragon’s exhaustion shone through in his words. He’d likely had to negotiate with people all day and would rather not do it in his private chambers as well.

Tough luck.

It wasn’t up to Dariel to make the prince’s life easier .

“What are you offering?” Dariel asked.

“A call. You mentioned there were others like you. They must be worried about you.”

Tension set into Dariel’s shoulders and made him sit straight. Had he said too much? No, even if he hadn’t mentioned the others, the prince would have realized there must be more mortals where Dariel was coming from. “I can’t trust you not to trace the call somehow,” he said. He did want to speak to Ben, or Aunt Marsh, and they did have one phone that they kept charged—though it hardly ever rang. Dariel had memorized the number years ago.

But the risk was too great.

“I wouldn’t.” Prince Curren caught Dariel’s gaze and held it. “I’m not interested in any other mortals. I’m only interested in you.”

Dariel swallowed hard, feeling trapped by the prince’s attention once more.

The thing was, he couldn’t detect a lie in the dragon’s words, in the way he looked at him. Prince Curren didn’t want another mortal. He wanted Dariel—with an intensity that was dizzying.

Dariel had to tear his gaze away to keep his mind functioning.

“I’ll even leave the room while you talk,” the prince offered.

“You’re not afraid that they’ll come to break me out?”

“I’m not.”

The dragon’s easy confidence made a grim smile play over Dariel’s lips. Of course Prince Curren wasn’t worried about a bunch of magicless creatures possibly breaking through his castle’s defenses. “You could at least pretend that it’s possible.”

“And you could eat.” The prince offered the bowl to him once more. Just as Dariel was about to give in and take it, though, he said, “Wait,” as he lifted the meal to his own lips instead. Not to eat it, but to blow on it.

“What are you doing?”

“Reheating your meat. There, that should be better.”

 Dariel hated to admit it, but the prince was right. The mutton had the perfect temperature when he took the first bite. Not too hot, not too cold, and perfectly tender.

God, he’d never had meat like this.

To think that he’d almost passed it up…

As he savored the rich taste in his mouth, not even Prince Curren’s stupid smile could make him regret that he’d given in.

“I hope you enjoy it,” the prince said. “And don’t forget your water.”

More orders… For this once, Dariel decided to comply, though. He could go a long time without eating, but water was essential. Especially when a certain someone was constantly making his skin heat up.

Dariel looked down at his bowl. “Your cousin said you don’t eat mutton regularly.”

“Not this kind, no. The royal sheep are slaughtered only for special occasions. I suspect the kitchen staff will be gossiping for weeks about why I wanted it tonight.”

“I would have been fine with an ordinary meal.”

 The prince’s features softened. “How could I serve you something ordinary when you’re anything but?”

Suddenly, the meat in his mouth became hard to chew. Harder even, to swallow.

Why did the dragon have to go and say shit like that?

Dariel took another bite and chewed. Defiantly. “Don’t think this means you’ll always get what you want.”

“Don’t worry about that. Life is doing a great job of teaching me that lesson.” Prince Curren downed the rest of his drink in one go.

Dariel couldn’t help watching him. Only a few minutes ago, he’d accused the dragon of not seeing him as a person. Maybe he was making the same mistake in reverse. The prince had burned his father to rest mere days ago. Dariel still remembered the grief the waves of grief that had come off him that day. When he searched for that feeling, he found that it hadn’t gone away. It lay under the surface now. Contained, because it had to be, but there, nonetheless.

Setting his glass down, the prince turned toward the desk, tapping the buttons that had brought up the screen earlier. “I’ve put in my code to activate the system,” he explained.

Dariel rose from his seat to stand beside him, studying the string of buttons.

“It’ll be limited to voice call if your people only have an old phone,” Prince Curren guessed correctly. “Press the digits here, then this button.” He pointed to a green one.

“You won’t listen in?”

“You have my promise.”

Dariel wanted to cast doubt on what that was worth… but the prince hadn’t lied to him *so far.*

And he really wanted to make that call. His poor aunt would be worried sick by now.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll call.”

Prince Curren nodded and touched his shoulder, briefly, before he left the room.

Dariel dialed the phone number he’d been made to learn by heart. It was late, but someone would be awake. They always had at least one person on guard duty. Just because they were tucked away in the mountains didn’t mean they never ran into trouble. Sometimes a wolf got too close for comfort.

The phone only rang for a few minutes before someone picked up.

Cautious silence greeted Dariel on the other end of the line, so he spoke first. “It’s Dariel,” he said.

“Where are you?” a gruff male voice demanded immediately. Dariel recognized it as belonging to Robert. The man was a little older than Aunt Marsh, and he’d deny it if you’d ever ask him, but he’d always had a soft spot for her.

“Is my aunt still up? Could you get her on the phone?”

Robert huffed. “What do you think? Of course she’s still up! Like she could sleep with you sneaking around like you don’t have a care in the world.”

That wasn’t fair. Dariel hadn’t meant to let himself be captured.

He could have been more careful, though.

Like never attending the stupid announcement in the first place.

“I need to talk to her.”

“Damn right you do.” The other end of the line grew silent again, followed by shuffling. Dariel heard Robert calling for his aunt, but their voices sounded faint until Aunt Marsh picked up the phone.

“Dare?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Listen, I’m so sorry for not coming home.”

“Where are you?”

“You’d never believe me.” Dariel looked around himself, marveling at his own misfortune. When he’d woken up that morning, he’d never have thought that he’d end the day in his royal highness’s private bed chamber.

“Never mind that. You need to get back here. Not right now, of course. You know you can’t wander around the city after dark. The vampires would smell you. Oh lord, I kept thinking a vampire might already have gotten you.”

Dariel’s stomach tied itself into knots as he thought of all the dangers that lurked around the city at night.

It had been night time when they’d gotten his dad, too.

His hands tightened around the edge of the desk. “I’m safe.”

Relatively speaking, that wasn’t a lie.

Prince Curren wouldn’t harm him. He might not grant his request for freedom, but he wouldn’t harm him. Not physically, anyway. Dariel wasn’t so sure the same could be said about his mental and emotional wellbeing.

“Try to make your way back in the morning,” Aunt Marsh said. “We’re all worried about you.”

Yes, she sounded worried now, but Dariel knew, the moment he got back, he’d get the scolding of his life. He’d deserve it too.

Before he knew what he was doing, he found himself smiling.

Funny.

He’d never thought he’d long for a scolding.

“I can’t come back,” he admitted, his smile fading. “At least not yet.”

“What in the world are you doing?”

“Nothing. Prince Curren is keeping me in his castle.”

Silence.

Yeah, Dariel wouldn’t have known what to say either.

“Told you you wouldn’t believe me.”

“Never trust a dragon,” Aunt Marsh reminded him sharply. “The only thing those bastards are interested in is growing their territory and their treasures. They’ll sell you in a heartbeat once they realize what you are.”

“He already knows what I am.”

“He?”

“Prince Curren.”

A beat passed, then another. Dariel wasn’t surprised. If Aunt Marsh had found it hard to believe that Dariel was in the castle at all, hearing that he was on speaking terms with the prince himself would be an even tougher pill to swallow.

“I don’t know what the prince wants with you,” Aunt Marsh said eventually, “but it can’t be good. Mark my words, they’re all the same. He’s using you. I don’t know how, but he’s using you.”

Dariel almost laughed at that. It sounded so ridiculous. What use could a man like the prince of dragons possibly have for a lowly mortal like himself? “I only want you to know that I’m not in any danger,” he told his aunt.

Naturally, she didn’t seem convinced. “I want you home.”

“I want to *be* home,” Dariel insisted.

He wasn’t going to tell his aunt that a part of him denied that truth, deep inside of him. That same part that had always longed to go down into the city. He’d never been able to explain that pull…

Until now.

“I’ve gotta hang up,” he said, because he needed to end this call before anything truly stupid slipped his lips.

“Promise you try to get back as soon as you can.”

“Promise.” With that, he hung up.

***

The prince strode back into the room only a few minutes after Dariel was done with his call. “I hope it went well?” he asked. It was difficult for Dariel to focus on the question, though, when the prince was taking his clothes off while he spoke.

Granted, Prince Curren had never worn a lot of fabric to begin with, but the little bit of cloth he’d had on his body had at *least* hidden his genitals.

And now the dragon took it off as if it was no big deal.

When Dariel stared, Prince Curren seemed amused. “Is there a problem?” he asked. “Do you sleep in your clothes? Because I hope that you don’t.”

Still, it was really, really hard to focus on the words coming out of the prince’s mouth rather than admiring his package.

Fuck, that thing was *big.*

And it only seemed to grow under Dariel’s attention.

The prince took a step toward him. “Touch me if you’d like.”

Dariel’s throat closed up, his heart pumping his blood through his body so fast it was making him light-headed. The prince’s invitation was enough to make him picture what it would be like to feel that hard cock in the palm of his hand, and *that* was enough to make his own dick swell.

At least he was still wearing clothes.

Not that they were helping much.

Judging by the dragon’s confident smile, he knew exactly how aroused Dariel was.

Prince Curren’s hand closed around Dariel’s wrist. “Shall we go to bed? It’s been a long day for both of us.”

Dariel didn’t think he could sleep. Not with the prince right next to him. He tried to wrench his wrist out of the prince’s grasp. “I’ll sleep on the floor.”

Prince Curren tightened his hold on Dariel. “Nonsense.”

“Are you going to offer me another deal?”

The corner of the prince’s mouth perked. “Some things are nonnegotiable. This is one of them.”

“So you’re going to force me?”

“Let me make one thing very clear.” Prince Curren’s expression turned serious. “When I say I won’t negotiate on this, that only applies to you. I have, in fact, been in a constant debate regarding my actions toward you with my inner beast from the moment I stepped into this room. If it was up to the dragon inside of me, I would rip your clothes off, throw you on the bed, and fuck you so hard you couldn’t walk for a week straight. I would not ask your permission. I would not give you a choice.” He pulled Dariel toward him, as he spoke, saying every word as if it was fact. “You’re lucky that I don’t give my best control of me. I fight against those urges every second of every minute that I look at you, but there’s only so much I can compromise on. You will sleep by my side, because that is your proper place, and I will not argue about this.”

That was insane.

And yet, Dariel felt it in his bones that every word was true. There was a dragon inside of the man before him. A dragon who wanted to own and devour every piece of Dariel, and never let go. A dragon who wanted Dariel next to him, every night, and who would not be persuaded otherwise. They *would* be sleeping in one bed, no matter what Dariel said or how hard he fought. His best hope would be to wait for the dragon to fall asleep and sneak out *then.*

“I won’t be naked.” Even if there was no chance to get away from the prince, he needed to argue *this* point, at least. There was no way he’d get through the night if he had to spend it lying naked next to the man who’d starred in all of his dreams for the past week. He’d spontaneously combust.

Prince Curren regarded him for a long moment, as if trying to decide if he was open to negotiating this or not. “I don’t understand why you insist on wearing so many clothes to begin with. Don’t they weight you down?”

“They don’t.” His shirt and pants were made of pretty thin fabric, to be honest. Both had been worn and washed regularly for years.

“You won’t be comfortable.”

“You won’t be comfortable either, without your coals. You’ll be cold.”

Prince Curren’s lips twitched. “I could never be cold while sharing a bed with my mate.”

That argument took the wind out of Dariel’s sails. What was he supposed to respond to that?

Fortunately, it seemed he didn’t have to say anything.

Maybe the prince was simply too tired to argue, or maybe he wanted to give Dariel some time to adjust, who knew? In any case, he said, “Fine. Keep your clothes.” Just as Dariel wanted to relax, though, he added, “Only for tonight, though. I won’t put up with this nonsense forever.”

Dariel scoffed.

Forever didn’t matter.

He wasn’t going to stay here that long.

Chapter Nine

Dariel wished he’d taken his clothes off after all. He should have known, but dragons were freaking hot. Not only because of the way they looked and they way they were built—or because of the things looking at Prince Curren did to scramble Dariel’s brain, but also just because of the sheer amount of body heat they generated.

Lying next to the prince, Dariel wouldn’t have needed a blanket on the coldest winter night, and he certainly didn’t need one know.

Well, he kind of did. To hide his erection.

The room wasn’t completely dark. The prince had left the flames burning in the fire place. Another source of heat. The reason Dariel was sweating so hard.

Oh, who was he kidding?

It wasn’t the fire drenching him in sweat.

He might have been fine if the prince had allowed him to make himself small and stay on the very edge of the mattress, if the prince had allowed a few inches of space between them.

Sadly, the dragon hadn’t let him entertain those thoughts for even a second.

The moment he’d turned the lights off and dragged Dariel into bed with him, he’d also wound that stupid tail of his around Dariel’s right thigh, keeping him from straying too far.

God, he hated those tails.

“I thought I wasn’t your prisoner,” Dariel said.

Prince Curren chuckled—and didn’t relax his hold. “You speak as if you’re not enjoying this, but I know you are.”

Another thing Dariel hated: the fact that the damn dragon was right about that. His breath whispered across Dariel’s skin as he spoke, inciting nerves that already felt way too raw. Being this close to the prince, breathing in his scent of ash and ember, Dariel felt drunk. Worse than drunk. At least when he’d only had a couple of beers, he knew the haze wouldn’t last. This was different. This thing, this infatuation or whatever it was, wasn’t going to pass.

The logical part of his mind wanted to put space between himself and the dragon. Every *other* part of him wanted to reach out, to touch, to be touched in return. He wanted, needed to feel the prince’s lips on his again, to close his eyes and lose himself in the other man’s presence. To feel complete.

Dariel wasn’t convinced that the prince could read his thoughts or sense his feelings, but maybe he did, or maybe he acted wholly out of selfish motivations when he slung an arm around Dariel’s back and pulled him against himself. One of his wings expanded to cover them, as if the prince felt the need to shield Dariel from the world. “Mine,” he murmured into Dariel’s ear as they lay chest to chest, hearts beating in tandem.

Shivers raced down Dariel’s spine.

He wanted to argue. He *had* to argue.

But how could he?

He clamped his lips together instead. He might not be able to argue with the feelings the prince stirred in him, but he could at least keep himself from agreeing with the possessive bastard.

A low sound of laughter passed the prince’s lips and tickled the hair around Dariel’s ear. “Be that way, then. I don’t need you to say it.”

Yeah, of course he didn’t. The way their bodies pressed together, Dariel had very little chance of hiding what was going on with him. The blanket certainly wasn’t helping now. Not when Dariel’s erection was poking into Prince Curren’s thigh.

He wasn’t sure whether or not to feel smug about the responding hardness he felt against his own thigh. Mostly he just wanted to move, to rut against the prince. Find some release, from the thoughts in his head and from the need coiling his guts.

How had he ever gotten himself into this situation?

Deep breath, he told himself.

He couldn’t lose his mind now. He couldn’t let a dragon manipulate him like this.

But hell if he hadn’t always wanted to know what it would feel like to be held in the strong embrace of another man, and to feel the hard evidence of that man’s need for him.

The answer was that it felt overwhelming.

It got difficult to think, to breathe, even. His whole body was on fire, his skin tingled where the prince’s breath warmed it, and his heart hammered so hard he could feel his pulse in his throat.

There was something unnatural about his desire for this man who held him captive.

If he hadn’t kept his clothes on, he would be lost now, he knew it.

If the prince’s skin was touching his, he wouldn’t be able to stop himself.

He closed his eyes, desperate to escape the moment in his mind. He was not going to be this dragon’s bitch. He couldn’t be. “You did something to me to screw with my head,” he accused.

The prince laughed once more. “Only if you did the same thing to me, heart blood.”

Dariel was fairly sure he hadn’t done anything at all to the prince. How could he have? He’d never even seen the man in real life before that night at the basketball court.

And the dragon hadn’t left his thoughts since.

Whatever had happened between them, it had happened the instant their eyes had first met.

The prince’s hand stroked down his back, tracing the line of his spine and making Dariel’s mind stutter.

“You said you wouldn’t force yourself on me,” he reminded the prince.

“Are you asking me to stop?” The prince’s hand lingered above the waist band of Dariel’s pants.

“I am.” Dariel forced the words out of his throat, knowing that if he crossed that line, there would be no going back. He’d abandon his old life, his freedom, for good. He truly would become the dragon prince’s property, if he let himself.

No, that couldn’t happen.

His dad hadn’t died for him to become some paranormal freak’s plaything.

He shoved at the princes chest to push him away. Predictably, his efforts were met with very little success. Mortals didn’t have the strength to push dragons around.

Luckily, his message was received, though.

“Very well,” the prince said in a controlled tone of voice before withdrawing his hands, and his wing.

Cold seeped into Dariel’s skin where the dragon’s touch left him. This was what he’d wanted, and at the same time, it was not.

Fuck that.

He couldn’t make sense of his own mind.

Forcing himself to move, he rolled away from the prince, as far as the man’s tail allowed him, anyway. It wasn’t very far, but at least he could breathe again.

The prince didn’t say another word. He watched Dariel quietly, in the firelight, and then he closed his eyes as if he was going to rest.

Dariel stared up at the ceiling and focused on his breathing.

He only needed to wait for the prince to doze off and then his tail muscle would relax and Dariel could escape.

Sadly, that didn’t happen.

Even in sleep, the dragon never let go.

***

In a corner of his mind, Dariel had hoped that at least the dreams would stop now that he was with the dragon in real life, but it seemed that fate wasn’t inclined to grant him any peace.

And the fact that he *knew* he had to be dreaming didn’t make him feel any less ashamed when he clung to the prince’s naked body, grinding his hips against the other man’s groin the way he wanted to do when he was awake.

He wasn’t wearing clothes either, in his dream. They were skin on skin, the way they were meant to be.

His prince’s voice sounded gruff in his ears as the dragon’s fingers dug into his naked butt. “Let me take you. Let me make us whole.”

Dariel shuddered against the other man, imagining his thick hard cock inside of him, filling him.

He needed that as desperately as he needed air.

“Please,” he begged, his own voice pathetic to his ears.

The dragon groaned, a primal sound that reflected Dariel’s own desires. His cock twitched, wanting the dragon, wanting everything.

 Fingers prodded his hole, pressing inside. Dariel bore down on them. “Please,” he repeated. “Please. Fuck me.” It was the only thought in his head.

He moaned as the dragon’s finger curled inside of him.

He needed so much more than that.

So much…

He bit his lower lip and his awareness faded, only to be replaced with a different sort of awareness. His thoughts shifted, even as his need stayed with him.

The dream had slipped away from him, the way it always did.

Several things were different from the usual, though.

For one, he was still in the dragon’s bed, still drawing his scent into his nose with every breath, the dragon’s tail still wrapped around his leg. His head rested against Prince Curren’s naked chest, and his rock hard cock rested against the prince’s thigh.

Inside of his head, he counted down from five, hoping to calm himself, hoping he hadn’t made any noise in his dreams, hoping to hell that the prince was still asleep and hadn’t heard anything.

Naturally, he wasn’t that lucky.

“Interesting dreams?” The prince’s warm voice made Dariel’s cock want to twitch again, made Dariel want to act as needy and desperate and *willing* as he had been seconds ago.

Except that hadn’t really been him, and dreams didn’t count.

His cheeks burned.

He’d never asked the prince to fuck him before. Not even while he was asleep.

This day had done his head in.

The prince carded his fingers through Dariel’s hair as if it was his right, drawing Dariel’s mind right back to the fantasy he’d just left. “You sound so sweet when you beg for me.”

Dariel’s heart stopped.

Fuck.

He’d heard every word, hadn’t he?

“It was just a dream,” Dariel insisted. A weak protest, he knew, because he was still hard, and he hadn’t moved to put any distance between himself and the prince. He couldn’t. It was too much to ask.

“Let me help you.” The prince’s hand moved between them, fingers slipping underneath the waistband of Dariel’s pants. “Let me make you feel good.”

Dariel blew out a breath, heat rolling through him. This wasn’t right. “You said you—”

“Relax, Dariel. Only my hand. Nothing more, you have my word.”

Could he accept that?

Dariel knew he should say no, that he should keep fighting, because this was a slippery slope and if he didn’t resist, then…

Shit.

The prince’s hand wrapped around him and his thoughts fled him.

“Don’t think.” The prince kissed his ear. “Don’t fight. “

That sounded like some fucking good advice right about now.

It wasn’t like he was giving in. It wasn’t like he was letting the dragon *fuck* him. Right?

But if he allowed this once…

“Only tonight,” he said, hoping he didn’t sound as breathless as he felt. “Only your hand.” His eyes squeezed shut as he willed his shame away. He knew better than to do shit like this with a dragon.

Except he needed this right now.

It wasn’t logical and it wasn’t natural, but he didn’t have the strength to fight it.

“As you wish,” the prince agreed, making Dariel pulse with raw desire.

Slowly, he stroked his hand up and down Dariel’s cock, his grip steady and deliciously firm. Dariel’s eyes rolled back as the urge to move, to grind into the prince’s hand took over him. He was so damn hard he didn’t want to take things slow. He wanted to get off and release the tension in his body. Get out of this head space where nothing made sense and everything came down to lust.

The prince wasn’t in any hurry, though. “Relax,” he instructed once more. “Enjoy it.”

Easy for him to say. He wasn’t the one so high-strung with need he could barely breathe.

He thrust forward, meeting the motion of the prince’s hand, desperate for more, for faster.

The dragon’s tail withdrew from his leg, only to coil around his hips, restricting his ability to move. 

“Relax,” the dragon repeated. A command more than a request now.

Dariel cursed.

This was torture.

First he’d been captured, and now he was being tortured.

Exactly what he should have expected from dragons.

A high, keening noise escaped his lips as the dragon’s hand twisted around the sensitive head of his cock.

So close.

He was so fucking close.

The dragon licked the side of his neck, his jaw, his tongue as hot as every other part of him. “Mine,” he growled against Dariel’s skin. “All mine.” His hand tightened around Dariel’s cock.

Dariel didn’t have the air to form a response, and any protest he muttered would have been weak. How could he protest while his body craved nothing more than this dragon’s touch?

Their lips touched. Dariel’s mouth opened, without thought, hungry for anything his prince had to give him.

The moment their tongues met, the prince’s desire slammed into him like a force of nature, mingling with his own, as if their souls really were connected and he could feel every ounce of willpower it took the dragon to keep himself from devouring him whole. His breath caught in his throat, heart overwhelmed.

He trembled under the onslaught of emotion.

The prince hadn’t been exaggerating. There truly was a beast inside of him, kept in check, but barely.

The reality of it, the intensity of it, should have scared the crap out of Dariel.

Instead, it only turned him on more.

The prince’s tongue stroked his, and the prince’s hand worked his cock, and Dariel could not keep himself from falling apart. He’d never thought that a simple hand job could make him come undone, but there was nothing simple about this. His whole body shook in the prince’s hold, his eyes squeezed shut, and his throat produced sounds that, mercifully, got swallowed by the other man’s mouth. His hips jerked, straining against the dragon’s tail as his orgasm destroyed the last bit of sanity he’d been clinging to.

The pleasure of his release hit him like a shock to the system, like a bomb exploding inside of him, wrecking his body. He’d never known anything like it. He’d certainly not experienced this the few times he’d experimented with women. Even as his body stopped shaking, the aftershocks of his climax kept his mind spasming.

When the prince’s lips left his, he was panting, struggling to get himself back under control.

It was a vein struggle.

He’d never recover his sanity while his body was still pressed against the dragon’s.

While he could still feel the dragon’s hard cock poking his thigh.

He reached for it, before he knew what he was doing.

The prince grabbed his wrist, stopping him before he could touch. “Don’t,” he growled into Dariel’s ear. “Not unless you’re prepared to deal with the consequences.”

The consequences…

Dariel swallowed. “You mean…”

“I wouldn’t be able to hold myself back.” The prince’s tone wasn’t unkind, but firm. He was warning Dariel. “Don’t tease me.”

Dariel understood. More now than he had before. He’d sensed the beast living under Prince Curren’s skin; he knew that it was real. The thing was, he’d never been a selfish lover—and he wanted to touch. He knew he shouldn’t want to, that everything about this situation was wrong, but fuck all that. His mind was still reeling from the orgasm this man had just given him. He couldn’t roll over, close his eyes and go to sleep now.

“I can do for you what you did for me,” he offered.

The prince kissed his neck once more, a soft chuckle falling from his lips. “Your hand?”

“Yes.”

The prince loosened his hold on Dariel’s wrist, tracing his fingers over the back of his hand instead. “You don’t know how long it’s been since anyone’s touched me.”

“You don’t usually take lovers?”

There was something odd about the way the prince smiled in reaction to that question, something sad, but Dariel didn’t understand why. Prince Curren was a gorgeous man. If he didn’t have his pick of lovers, there had to be some sort of weird political reason for it. Maybe something cultural? Dariel didn’t know, and at this time, his mind was too foggy to care.

“It’s been a while,” the prince said, taking Dariel’s hand in his own.

Funny how that made Dariel’s skin tingle, only a minute after orgasm. He wasn’t ready to go again, but the prince made him feel like he could get there within another minute.

Especially when the prince guided Dariel’s hand on his cock. He was longer than Dariel, and thicker, and the feeling of all that hot, hard skin against his palm made his mouth water.

Fuck.

His fingers closed around the prince’s girth.

Dariel muttered a curse under his breath. Having a dragon’s dick in his hand should not feel this damn good.

There was no going back now, though.

The prince had warned him there wouldn’t be, and he made good on that promise, keeping a tight grip on Dariel’s hand, using it to jerk himself.

Although utterly spent, Dariel’s own cock twitched in response.

His gaze met Prince Curren’s, and he couldn’t look away, not even as the prince’s eyes fluttered shut.

There was something breathtakingly powerful about knowing he was the one who made the prince of dragons gasp with the touch of his palm, about knowing that hard cock was all for him.

About knowing exactly how difficult it was for this prince not to roll over and take him raw.

“Dariel…”

The way the prince spoke his name almost made him grow hard again.

The dragon might not be fucking his ass, but he was fucking his mind in the worst way.

Prince Curren’s eyes opened again, staring straight into Dariel’s, dark irises seeming to burn with a fire of their own rather than just reflecting the light of the fireplace. He jerked himself harder, faster. Dariel moved with him, willingly, feeling his hard cock throb in his hand, knowing he was close.

He kissed the prince, covered his lips with his own.

A strained noise escaped the prince’s throat, a sign of his struggle not to take more than Dariel was offering.

Dariel loved him for it.

A stray thought that made him want to stop cold, but of course, he couldn’t. He was caught in the tide now, and he had to ride it out, had to keep moving until thick, warm seed covered his hand, until the prince moaned against his mouth, catching his lips in another hungry kiss.

There was no more room for thoughts there.

There was only bliss.

Temporary, yes, but pure, for what it was.

 Chapter Ten

It would take some time for the mortal to fully come around to seeing things Curren’s way. Especially where their relationship was concerned. Curren was aware of this, and yet he couldn’t help but feel more than a little smug as he held his sleeping mate close to him, studying the mortal’s relaxed expression.

They’d taken a big step forward tonight. Everything else would fall into place.

He took a deep breath, inhaling the foresty scent of his mate’s hair and closed his eyes.

Restraining himself had been the right call.

His inner dragon would get what he craved eventually.

He was about to fall back asleep when the sound of a commotion in the room next to his pulled him back to full awareness.

Was something going on with his brother?

Worry tightened his muscles.

He groaned inwardly.

Couldn’t he be allowed *one* good night?

Maybe that was too much to hope for. His twin hadn’t been doing great. Curren hadn’t even had a chance to discuss his mate with him.

Careful not to wake Dariel, he let go of the mortal and peeled himself out of bed. Footsteps sounded from the other room. Hushed voices. There was someone other than the night nurse in there with Nevin.

Curren opened the door to his brother’s chambers to find his uncle, the high lord Ridge Starclover of the Autumn Fae, kneeling by Nevin’s bedside.[ Nevin himself was pale as a winter’s sky, face contorted in pain. There was a distinct blue tint to his lips too.

 Heart stopping, Curren dropped down next to his brother. “What’s wrong with him?”

“He was having seizures.” Lord Ridge had one hand stretched out over Nevin’s chest, the flat of his palm pointed downward and enveloped in a warm green glow. Fae magic. Healing magic. It was what his uncle specialized him. Curren had never seen much of the man, growing up, but he’d become a constant visitor to the castle ever since they’d been struck by the scarlet curse.[ Most of Curren’s maternal family didn’t approve of him and his twin, but Uncle Ridge had said he couldn’t stay away if there was something he could do to help his late sister’s children. 

Curren was grateful for that, even if he wished there was *more* the man could do. Fae magic was incredibly powerful, but it couldn’t cure Nevin, or Curren, for that matter. It hadn’t been able to save their father either.

“It’s a good thing your brother has some fae blood in him,” Lord Ridge said. “It makes him respond to my magic a little better. If only you two had inherited more of your mother’s powers.”

Curren grimaced. Fae magic was different from dragon magic. Sometimes he wondered if it was impossible for the two to exist in the same host simultaneously, since neither he nor Nevin had ever been able to do anything the fae did. His maternal grandfather said it was because he was cursed, because he and his brother had killed their mother in childbirth.

Bitter words from a bitter man.

Sometimes, though, Curren wondered if there wasn’t something to it.

He took his brother’s hand in his, holding on tight. “We need to get him warm.”

“There’s more coals in the fireplace.” Lord Ridge motioned behind him without leaving his position. His attention was trained on Nevin. The fae eternally looked young, but in this moment, Curren thought his uncle looked like an old man who had seen too much tragedy.

It made his stomach churn.

He couldn’t lose his brother the way he’d lost his father.

If that was his fate, he wasn’t going to accept it.

His gaze found the night nurse, a young dragon lady standing near the door. “Get the coals,” he instructed, annoyed that he even had to say it.

The nurse nodded and set to work without a word.

Nevin’s lips parted in a silent gasp, his hand squeezing Curren’s.

“You’ll be okay,” Curren promised, looking at their hands. At least there was some strength, some fight left in his brother. If Nevin wasn’t ready to give up, neither was Curren.

Even if there wasn’t anything he could do but sit by his brother’s side and place the coals on his skin as the nurse brought them.

Lord Ridge’s hand glowed brighter. His brows furrowed as his magic finally engulfed Nevin’s body in a green shimmer. Curren watched with bated breath as his twin’s features relaxed.

They were lucky that their uncle was here tonight.

Curren exhaled, his fingers still intertwined with Nevin’s. This was temporary relief, he knew that, but he was grateful for it nonetheless.

The fae lord blew out a breath too. He sounded about as exhausted as his nephew looked.

“Thank you,” Curren said. “For your help tonight.”

Lord Ridge shook his head. “I only wish there was more I could do. If he was fae…”

“Could you cure him then?”

Gently, Lord Ridge stroked a lock of hair back from Nevin’s face. “I could help him cure himself. Fae magic doesn’t come from within you. It comes from nature. No virus can corrupt it.”

Didn’t that sound lovely… “Sadly, we are dragons. Our magic comes from our cores, and without it, we are nothing.” Curren leaned over to place a kiss on his brother’s forehead. All the kingdom’s best scientists were working on finding a cure for this damn disease… but so far, they had nothing.

“I believe we will be okay for tonight.” Lord Ridge said.

For tonight…

It was a small consolation, but better than nothing.

“I will have to rest.” The fae lord rose from his position by Nevin’s side. “Make sure to keep him warm. You know how to reach me if there’s any trouble.” He turned to the nurse. “Let’s give them a moment.”

The nurse nodded, and the two of them left the room together.

Curren felt like falling in on himself once he was left alone with his brother. “If only we had taken after our mother,” he murmured, even though he’d never known the woman who’d given birth to him.

There was no response from Nevin, naturally, but a different sound caught Curren’s attention. A shuffling by the door that led to his chambers.

He huffed a tired laugh. “Are you trying to hide from me?”

What an image he must be presenting to his reluctant mate. Not the strong ruler he wanted to be seen as, just a half-broken man who had to admit that nothing mattered.

So what if he’d found his mate?

So what if he won all the challenged posed to him by his aunt?

In the end, he’d still lose everything.

The door opened a little wider and Dariel stepped into the room, seeming a bit unsure of himself, as if he knew he was witnessing something he wasn’t supposed to.

Curren didn’t mind, though. What point was there in hiding things from his mate?

“Sit.” He patted the space next to him with his free hand. “Watch the coals. You’ll burn yourself.”

The mortal sat down silently, a good few inches away from the hot coals, and a good few inches away from Curren.

So they were back to that, were they?

He shouldn’t be surprised. He’d manipulated the mortal’s arousal earlier, to get him close, but this situation was decidedly not sexy.

“That’s… Prince Nevin?” Dariel asked.

“Yes.”

“I almost forgot that you have a brother,” the mortal admitted.

“He hasn’t left the castle in a while.”

“I heard that he’s sick.”

“Yes.” Curren stroked his thumb over the back of his brother’s still hand. “It’s the same sickness that killed our father.” His own voice sounded toneless to his ears, as if he needed to separate himself from his emotions in order to keep his shit together.

The situation was bad enough without him adding pathos to it.

“I’m sorry,” Dariel said.

Curren glanced at him, studied the sympathetic expression on his mate’s face. He hadn’t expected to get any sympathy from the mortal who didn’t even want to take the food Curren offered without squabbling about it first. In a weird way, seeing his own sadness reflected in his mate’s eyes made everything hit harder.

Turning away, he cursed.

“What?” Dariel asked. “Did I say something wrong?”

“No.”

“I really am sorry. I lost my dad too. I know how much it sucks. I don’t have any siblings, but I figure if…” he broke off, obviously not wanting to mention any other mortals by name. He was so careful about not betraying his people. As if Curren would ever want to hurt his mate’s family.

He understood Dariel’s position, though. He was a lamb caught in a lion’s den, and he cared about his family, as much as Curren cared about his.

“I’m going to spend the night here,” he said. “You should go back to bed. You’ll even get the whole bed to yourself,” he added with a wry smile. “Count yourself lucky.”

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