The Dented Crown

Two kingdoms. Two princes. One secret to break them, or to bind them.

When a rowboat washes up on the riverbank, Prince Malires puts his kingdom’s security first. The dead man lying in the boat can’t answer many questions, but the seriously injured survivor might be able to give Malires some details about what happened in the hostile kingdom to the north. If, that is, the young man ever wakes up.

Malires knows who the survivor is: Prince Aleric, youngest son of the King of Gerelen. He’s the most renowned warrior that Gerelen has ever known, and Malires has barely survived their previous encounters. Only his need to understand why Gerelen suddenly stopped communicating with the outside world keeps him from taking advantage of the situation and taking out this threat to his kingdom.

It has nothing to do with the sudden discovery of how beautiful Aleric is.

Unfortunately for Malires, when Aleric does awaken he has no memory of who he is or even of his own kingdom. The court physicians insist that Aleric’s memories must return naturally, or else they might be lost forever.

While both men recognize the urgent need for answers, they cannot fight their attraction for one another. Aleric comes to feel just as defensive of Malires’ kingdom as he once did of his own. When the truth comes out, will love conquer all, or will misunderstanding and pride drive Aleric to a desperate undertaking?

Excerpt

Sokol had been working out. Malires found him where the guards trained, in the middle of a ring set apart by a rope fence. The regular army had a similar arrangement for sparring, so it wasn’t unfamiliar to Malires. What was unfamiliar was the sheer quantity of people gathered around the ring to watch the bout currently taking place. Malires counted not only guardsmen but priests and servants among their number, and every guardsman who wasn’t on duty had come out to watch the fight.

Perhaps “fights” might have been a better term. When Malires looked closely, he could see that anyone wearing training clothes sported some kind of bruise or cut. None of them looked serious, just the kind of thing that happened in training sometimes, but still—everyone had taken a hit.

Right now, Sokol stood at the center of the ring. He’d stripped to the waist—no padding, no armor, no kind of protection for his long, lean, muscular body. Malires’s jaw dropped. Sokol’s body, half-clad as it was, seemed more like a sculpture than like something that belonged on a human form. Every muscle stood out, nothing to soften the definition of his body. His bronze skin glistened with sweat, which ran down his torso in broad streaks toward the waistband of his workout trousers. His large, almond-shaped eyes burned with an intensity that Malires had only ever seen when it had been focused on him.

The prince swallowed. Sokol stood for a moment as the sunlight shone down on him, and Malires had to fight down the desire that welled up inside himself. He saw the sweat on Sokol’s abdomen, and he wanted to lick it off, catch his tongue on the dark little trail of hair that just disappeared at the waistband. He wanted to run his fingers through that wild black hair and see what it felt like against his skin. He wanted—he just wanted.

Then Sokol moved, so fast that Malires’s eye could barely follow. A punch, a knife-edge strike with his off hand. A whirl, a spin, a kick to the opponent’s back, and his opponent flew across the ring and onto the ground. Sokol breathed in and out, and just like that it was over. That strange intensity left his eye and he sauntered over to his opponent with a grin, helping him to his feet with an easy grin. “Are you okay, Yersey?”

Yersey coughed out a weak little laugh and let the taller man help him up, grinning. “I’ll live. Man, I don’t know who you were, but you’re sure as hell a force of nature now!”

Sokol blushed, a pretty redness spreading down his neck to the top of his chest. “Nah. I’m just a big old goofball. In training’s one thing.” He clapped his comrade on the back—gently, Malires noticed, avoiding the bruise that was already forming. “Who knows how it would be in a real fight? Come on, who’s next?”

“He was the last one, you big giant,” a tiny guard Malires knew as Irlas commented, making a shooing motion with his hands. “How about if you go wash up and put some clothes on before we start to get civilians back here to come and gawk at you?”

That was when Malires realized that his arrival had gone completely unnoticed. Every temple staffer—even his own sister, who he finally noticed over among a crowd of priests in the far corner—had been so caught up in Sokol’s display that they’d let the arrival of the prince go completely without notice. He should be angry; he should be furious. Instead he just grinned. “That seems like an excellent idea, Guardsman.”

He chuckled as a collective gasp rang out from the assembled spectators. Dark heads bobbed as the audience bowed, showing proper deference. “Sokol, if you would be so kind.” He gestured to the young man who had so recently been the center of all the attention.

Sokol paled but rose and hurried after him.

Would he have hurried after a foreign prince, especially one he’d defeated in battle on more than one occasion, if he’d known who he was? Of course not. He’d have taken the lead, owned the situation and everything around him. But he didn’t, because he’d become Sokol, the happy-go-lucky temple guardsman. Malires had to remember that. He struggled to contain himself as he led the way back toward Sokol’s room. “I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve come for you.”

Sokol gave a wry grin. It looked like it had started out as a smirk, but he’d remembered his place. “I’m sure Your Highness will tell me when the time is right for me to know.”

Malires’s insides gave a little twist. Such trust! Such trust from someone who had been quite intent on killing him, more than once! His palms had gone damp with sweat. “I’ve spoken with the kingdom’s most senior magician about your case and about your dream. He’d like to meet with you as soon as possible.”

“Of course, my lord.” Sokol stood to attention.

Malires waited. “You might want to clean up first.”

The warrior blushed again. He did that a lot. Did he realize how pretty he looked when he blushed? “Of course, sir.” He bowed and disappeared into the bathing room. Malires resisted the urge to follow him.

He emerged not long after, damp but clean and dressed appropriately for leaving private quarters. Malires couldn’t help but feel a sense of loss, but he’d always have the memory, he supposed. Sokol walked beside him as Malires’s guards fell in around them. “So what was that today?” the prince asked.

Sokol laughed a little. “Earlier, Your Highness? That was just a little exercise. It was just something to pass the time. I was feeling… My body felt like it needed to move more than it has been, so some of the guys were willing to help me out. I guess it kind of sprung up from there.” He hung his head. “It wasn’t meant to be an exhibition or anything; I’m not like that.”

“It’s okay, Sokol. There wasn’t any harm in it. It seems as though people enjoyed it. I know I did.” Malires bit the inside of his cheek and mentally kicked himself. He shouldn’t have added that part.

“My lord? It was immodest. I should have left my tunic on, at least.” His cheeks reddened. “I was glad of the exercise, though.” He took a deep breath. “I don’t remember fighting, or learning to fight, but I think I like being active.”

“I don’t think that it’s going too far to say that you’re a skilled warrior, Sokol. Whether it’s as you or the man you used to be.” Malires chuckled, although there probably wasn’t as much humor in it as he’d have liked. “I’ve seen it, although not quite like that.”

The Gereleni whipped his head around, hope and fear mixing in his eyes. “Your Highness has?”

“I believe that I’m not allowed to tell you more, Sokol. But we don’t know each other well. I’ve just seen you fight, and you’re more than talented.” He sighed. “Believe me. I would do a lot to have half of your skill. At any rate, our magician may be able to help you, but his primary goal is to look further into that cloud that you saw. I want to help you recover your memories, I do, but my first duty is to Agilos. You—you understand that, right?”

“Of course, Your Highness.” Sokol nodded. “I wouldn’t believe anything less. You’re a devoted prince, from what I’ve seen and from what I’ve heard, and you’ll make an excellent king someday.”

Was it Malires’s imagination, or had a little bit of the light faded from Sokol’s eyes? “That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to help you. I just have to think of my kingdom first.”

Sokol blinked. “Of course. I wouldn’t—no one would ever think to have it any other way.”

They arrived at Egarit’s library, or what he called his library. In reality, Egarit’s home was more like the Golden Temple complex, with dormitories for students, laboratories, and logistical facilities as well as multiple buildings for book storage. A guard escorted Malires and Sokol in, and it didn’t take long for Sokol’s discomfort to show. The foreigner’s breath became short and shallow, and his eyes darted all around without lingering on any one object. He jumped at every little sound.

Malires put a hand on his forearm. “Are you all right, Sokol? No bias against magic, I hope?”

Sokol gave him another wry grin. “I don’t know of any, but I suppose that I wouldn’t.” He sighed. “I just… Something about this place is making me… It’s like my skin feels too tight all of a sudden.”

“That’s interesting.” Egarit’s voice rumbled out from behind a bookshelf before either prince could see him, but he followed it soon after. “Have you always been sensitive to magic, young man?”

“I don’t know, sir. My memories only go back about six weeks or so.” Sokol took a deep breath and coughed it out as he tried to exhale. “Sorry. I just… I don’t have a lot of contact with magic.”

“And your coming here was tangled up in some bad magic indeed.” Egarit nodded. “Your mind and body are shying away from it. I’ll try to help you if I can, but I suppose that Janna has already told you why it might not be the best idea to try to force anything.”

“Yes, my lord.” Sokol hung his head.

“First things first, child. Come forward and give me that giant appendage you call a hand. Good. Good, let me see.” The magician took Sokol’s hand in his own and closed his eyes.

A warm, yellow glow grew forth from their clasped hands. Sokol’s eyes bulged, and he started to shake. Malires clasped his own hands behind his back to keep himself from reaching out. He needed this information; Agilos needed this information. Sokol, technically, needed this information too. He might find the process unpleasant in the short term, but there was no other way to get at the truth. He would have to fight down his own protective urges, but he would have to do it for everyone’s sake.

After five minutes, Sokol’s eyes rolled back in his head and he swayed on his feet. Malires barely got to him fast enough to catch him, knees buckling as the larger man fell into his arms as a dead weight.

Egarit dropped the guardsman’s hand with a mixture of trepidation and wonder. “Get him to a couch for now,” he urged, looking down at his bloody hand.

Malires dragged Sokol over to a low couch and examined the foreigner’s hand. The palm was smeared in blood, just as the magician’s had been.

Cover art: April Martinez

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