The Crown Prince of Holania slipped through the gardens, an ashen figure in a sea of scarlet, azure and lilac. His surcoat, breeches and tunic were all mourning shades of grey, his cloak a wave of obsidian velvet. The sun bled warmth across the spread of his shoulders and a chill breeze kissed colour into his cheeks. It was a perfect spring day, and Kiokharen hated every minute of it.
Kio crossed the courtyard, swatting aside the bees and dragonflies that flapped about with the ubiquitous buzz of spring. For weeks the castle had been alive in preparation for the change of season, excitement pulsing in anticipation of new life. Now all the floral garlands and silken streamers had been leached of their colour, replaced with the monochrome veil of grief.
A slab of white marble parted the swell of peonies; Kio’s stride slowed as he approached. His chest tightened, his fingers shook. He could not raise his eyes to read the words on the slate—nor those on the smaller stone nestled beside it.
The prince brought a hand to his face. His thumb dug into his temple as he fought to steady his breathing. ‘My dear Moyna,’ he choked. ‘What could I possibly say?’
Kio was aware of the tremor in his shoulders, of the waver in his voice, as he stood before the memorial stone. He had been more composed at the funeral pyre—more princely. Shock had rendered the pain distant and surreal. But today he was no longer the masked, stoic son of Holania—just a mess of emotion worthy of his father’s rebuke.
‘Your family returned to your estate in Honnah,’ Kio began after clearing his throat. ‘Couldn’t bear to be in the capital, they said. I don’t blame them. The halls are empty without you. It’s like the whole damned city has just … stopped. The markets are on hold, the spring festival, cancelled. They flock daily to the gates, you know. Commonfolk from all across the kingdom. Holania misses you, Lady Moyna Berne. I miss you.’
Kio closed his eyes and dipped his head in a lengthy solemn bow.
‘I loved you.’ His voice was a choked whisper. ‘You would have made a wonderful queen, and I daresay an even better moth——’
The words died on his tongue.
Kio closed his eyes and breathed himself calm, just as Moyna had taught him. In through the nose, slow and deep. Out through the mouth, deliberate and mindful. Name something he could smell, another he could fe——
Kio startled as a hand slipped into his. Rei-Hai Shaw appeared beside him, hair shining crimson like the spring blooms.
‘I came as soon as I heard.’ Rei’s voice was subdued in shared heartache.
Kio wanted to ask what mischief the young man was up to in Holania but saved his words. Instead he squeezed his hand.
‘Thank you,’ the prince said.
Their hands dropped and Kio made for the castle proper. Rei followed two steps behind. They did not speak as they continued through the west wing of the palace, which was silent and devoid of servants to appease the grieving prince. Ten days had passed since Moyna’s passing; life would return to normal on the morrow.
Kio ushered Rei inside his chamber. The shorter man passed him in a shroud of black. The prince lingered as he closed the door.
‘Have you been sleeping?’ Rei asked. ‘You look ill. You should——’
Rei was silenced by the slamming of their lips. Kio squeezed the smaller man close. Rei pulled back to breathe Kio’s name, hand cupped along the prince’s cheek, faces close and noses brushing. A momentary rest; Kio eagerly pushed for another kiss and found lips pliable to his touch.
They stumbled towards the bed, an entanglement of limbs and discarded clothes. Rei collapsed on the feather mattress and in a well-practice dance, guided the prince down on top of him. Fingernails speared flesh. Gentle kisses teased sensitive necks. Rei’s lips parted in a moan, toes curling. Kio held him close.
The afternoon deepened. A golden glow crept through the curtains casting shadows across their entwined bodies splayed across the bed. Rei had rolled to his stomach, arms folded beneath his cheek, head turned towards Kio. With his hooded eyes and shallow breathing, he appeared asleep; Kio knew he was not. He traced fingertips down the slender ripples of Rei’s muscled back, noting several scars that had not been there before.
‘It’s been two years,’ he said.
Rei’s eyes snapped open, golden irises narrowing to their peculiar feline slits.
‘Two years. All this time I asked for you, you never came.’
‘I replied when I could,’ the redhead said, rolling over.
‘Words on parchment are hardly the same.’
‘You had just married.’ Rei sat up, back turned. ‘Moyna was a good woman. I wasn’t going to complicate things.’
‘She already knew, Rei-Hai.’
‘We were close, Rei. She knew me every bit as well as you.’
‘And she married you anyway?’ Rei jibed.
‘She was preened to be my bride since we were children, you know that. When I told her I held no passion for women she just took my hand and said, “Fine”. There are other ways to love one another, she told me. And we’—Kio choked back tears—’We did, we really did.’
A sympathetic smile broke Rei’s otherwise solemn expression.
‘It took us over a year to conceive an heir,’ Kio confessed. ‘I thought perhaps we couldn’t because it was always so dutiful, so physically dispassionate … And just like that it happened. But then …’ Kio shrugged.
Rei reached out for the prince’s hand. The compassionate squeeze betrayed the strength hidden in his slight frame.
‘I’m going to be alone in this world, Rei-Hai. Everyone leaves one way or another. You, Amika, Moyna. Please, Rei. Don’t go.’
Kio didn’t realise he was crying until the tears splashed down onto his naked chest. Rei rushed to close the space between them. He wrapped him in his arms and let the prince fell apart.
THE FAMILIAR PANGS OF GRIEF joined Kio in waking. His eyes were sandpaper, rubbed raw. The night had passed quickly, despite his fitful sleep. Kio rolled over, surprised and relieved to find Rei still curled beside him. It was strange to see him in the morning light; the sun bleached his skin porcelain, fragile and precious. Kio stroked his fingers down Rei’s biceps, along the snaking curl of the inky etchings in his flesh.
Rei woke instantly.
‘You’re still here,’ Kio said softly. It was a surprise he didn’t trust. Their meetings were always the same: a passionate tryst, a painful goodbye, and a promise to put an end to their dangerous relations. And yet here he was.
Rei propped himself up on an elbow and brushed his crimson hair back from his face. He took a brief glance out the window then said, ‘I’m not due at the safe house for two more days.’
Kio hesitated. ‘And what does that mean?’
The ghost of a smile curled Rei’s lips. He rolled towards Kio, bringing their bodies close. ‘It means’—fingers caressed the prince’s jawline —’I’m not expected to be anywhere until then.’
Their lips locked and Kio burned. He lost his fingers in Rei’s hair as he pulled him close, tongue thrusting deep. Kisses trailed the sharp edge of the prince’s jawline before gradually making their way south. Kio moaned as teeth found a nipple.
The chamber door swung open. Kio leapt from the bed, heart lodged in his throat. He hastily drew a robe about himself as his servant crossed the room, hands burdened by a silver platter heavy with the morning’s feast.
‘Deities dead, Callym! Have the past eight years of service afforded you too many liberties?’
The young man stiffened. ‘Sorry, My Prince? Were you not wanting a meal this morning?’
Kio snatched the tray from Callym and all but pushed him towards the exit.
‘Get out. Do not disturb me further.’
‘Very well, My Pri——’
Kio slammed the door closed with his foot. He turned to find the bed empty and his spirits dove. Just like that Rei was gone—spooked by a boy with a fruit platter. He sunk to the bed and dropped the tray beside him.
‘That was subtle and not at all suspicious,’ Rei noted sardonically, slinking out from between the folds of the drapes. Relief flooded the prince’s chest.
‘It’s not the first time I’ve chastised the boy,’ Kio said. ‘Won’t be the last, either. Here, eat something.’
He held an apricot pastry out towards Rei and bid him back to bed. Rei took the offering and slipped back under the blankets.
‘Wine?’ Kio suggested, holding up the carafe.
‘At this hour?’
Kio shrugged and filled his glass with a dry merlot.
‘You should drink tea.’ Rei said and plucked another sticky pastry from the tray.
The prince gave a gentle snort. ‘You sound just like Moyna. “Try this herbal brew,” she’d always say. “It’ll help you relax .”‘
‘And did it?’
Kio downed his wine. ‘Yes. Wine just tastes better.’
Rei smiled softly and brushed the back of his knuckles across Kio’s forearm.’There’s this place in Kheshtarl,’ he said. ‘Right down on the eastern-most peninsula, on the other side of the jungles of Khel. A little fishing village called Koreemal. They brew this banana wine so saccharine not even you would drink it. And that’s all they do. Peel bananas and scale fish for days on end—enough fun for an entire lifetime.’
‘You hate bananas,’ Kio noted.
‘And you hate fish.’
‘Guess we can take Koreemal off our tour, then.’
Rei sucked the glaze from his fingertips. ‘Ah yes, when you’re on your diplomatic travels as king, visiting all the neighbouring regions in the name of peace and goodwill. And there I’ll be, hidden behind you and the skirts of your bride. All the bards will pen salacious poems about us’—Rei waved his hand in an arch in front of his face—'”The King and His Shadow“.’
He sneered and swiped a mouthful of Kio’s wine despite his earlier protests.
‘Don’t be savage; I’m serious,’ the prince insisted. ‘I don’t ask you to hide—you do that on your own. I never want you to and Moyna didn’t either. She wanted you here. She wanted you seen. An equal in every way.’
Rei’s palpable bitterness retreated beneath the surface, where it always bubbled until talk of the future sent it boiling to the fore again. ‘Well,’ he said, mellowed. ‘There aren’t too many people like Moyna.’
‘And now there’s even less.’
Rei reclined back on the pillows, suddenly distant. Kio set the finished tray down on the floor and reached for Rei’s hand. He rubbed his thumb over the bands tattooed around his wrist. Each mark had a meaning, Rei-Hai had once said, without ever revealing what.
‘If I ask you something, will you answer?’ Kio dared.
Rei’s silence bid him to continue.
‘Why did you stay away? After Moyna and I wed. We’d been betrothed half my life and that never kept you from my bed.’
Rei remained taciturn and Kio was sure he would run, deflect the question or slink wordlessly off into the shadows. But he didn’t. His hand retained its strong grip about Kio’s, golden gaze diverted. Rei’s tongue wet his lips and then he spoke.
‘Because it hurt.’ His voice was small. ‘I didn’t expect it to, but it did.’
‘You were jealous.’
At that, Rei withdrew. ‘And what right do I have to feel jealousy for a prince?’
‘Every right.’ Kio cupped his hand along Rei’s chin and turned his head towards him. ‘I’ve told you a thousand times and I’ll tell you a thousand more if I must. I don’t care what you are. I don’t care what the Tower makes you do. I love you, Rei-Hai Shaw. And that will never change.’
Rei made to turn away but Kio held his face steady. His feline eyes glistened and shook and for a moment, Kio thought he might cry; but Rei-Hai Shaw kept his emotions hidden like the tattoos on his flesh. Instead he kissed him, and that was all Kio needed to know.
THE NEXT TIME HE WOKE, Rei was standing by the foot of the bed, fully clothed. The day had come and gone and darkness prevailed beyond the window. Kio rose in search of clothes.
‘Don’t get up,’ Rei said softly. ‘Rest.’
‘You’re leaving,’ Kio surmised.
Rei nodded solemnly. ‘The safe house isn’t in Adria.’
Kio sprang from the bed to embrace him. Resting his cheek upon the smaller man’s head, Kio breathed one last lungful of Rei’s scent and clung to him even tighter.
‘I have to go,’ Rei said but his hands still held fistfuls of Kio’s robe. Eventually, Kio’s embrace slackened and Rei took a step back. He reached up and stroked the taller man’s cheek. ‘Stay strong, My Prince,’ he said.
‘Promise me you’ll be safe.’ Kio’s hand moved to meet Rei’s, fingers entwining. ‘And careful.’
‘I’m always careful.’
But never safe.
Rei backed towards the window; Kio followed after him, hands still locked. Perched on the windowsill, the redhead lingered. ‘Write, if it helps,’ he said. ‘Piren-Ha will always find me.’
‘Maybe I’ll have her fly me to you, instead of just my letters.’
‘Yes, well, keep drinking that wine and you might just be dumb enough to try.’
A laugh broke free. ‘It would have been something,’ Kio said, grinning. ‘The life we might have had. You, me, Moyna. You’re alike in so many, uncanny ways.’
Rei gave a wry little smile. He reached out to stroke Kio’s face one last time, fingers brushing briefly over his lips. Kio wanted nothing more than to grab his wrist and keep him close.
‘Good bye, Kiokharen.’
With that, he was gone. Kio stared at the space where Rei had crouched, hoping to blink and find him returned. The night beyond the window was dark and still. Kio closed his eyes and took a long, deep breath as the tremor returned to his hands. He stepped back from the window, poured himself a wine, and collapsed on the bed.
THE KING & HIS SHADOW takes place one year before the events of the upcoming dark fantasy trilogy, GARDENS OF WAR & WASTELAND.
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