BOOK 1: THE CONTINGENCY PLAN
With everyone now in attendance, Queen Giselle stepped forward. “Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Lords, and people of Zioneven, please accept our warm welcome to Sheburat, and I hope you’ll accept our sincere apology for the chaos in which you find us today.”
Prince Efren inclined his head. “Of course, Your Majesty. On behalf of Zioneven, I offer our heartfelt condolences on the loss of your beloved daughter.”
“Thank you,” Queen Giselle replied. “Sadly, our loss yesterday affects more than simply causing us private pain.”
“Indeed.” Prince Efren kept his reply short, perhaps diplomatically leaving it to Queen Giselle to either further the conversation toward whether or not he was ready to choose his alternate, or to wait for a time when her grief would be less immediate.
His mother would put diplomacy first, Marcelo didn’t doubt that. The conversation may or may not happen today, but it would occur during this visit. Diplomacy always came ahead of personal concerns.
“Although disappointment caused by the cancellation of the wedding we’d expected tomorrow is unavoidable,” Queen Giselle said. “I hope you’ll find a small comfort in knowing that you may now make your own choice of your future bride from among my younger daughters rather than the arrangement made on your behalf at the tender age of five.”
Again, Prince Efren inclined his head. “Sibling.”
“Sibling. The terms of the treaty specify I may choose an alternate from among Princess Marcela’s younger siblings. It didn’t restrict the choice to daughters.”
Marcelo stiffened. What in the world could Prince Efren mean by that? Men didn’t marry men. At least, he’d never heard of such a thing occurring in Sheburat. Marcelo wasn’t alone in his bewilderment. Everyone on his side of the room stilled. None of the faces opposite them exhibited confusion. Was that an acceptable option in Zioneven’s culture?
It was only by mere minutes, but Marcelo did qualify as a younger sibling to Marcela.
For the first time in Marcelo’s recollection, his mother faltered. “Do…surely…but…”
Marcelo turned his head toward her, his wide eyes silently imploring her to voice an objection. Kemble may have recently grown complacent thinking herself in the clear, but she’d at least spent her life knowing she was the likely backup plan.
As a royal son in this matriarchal society, Marcelo had grown up knowing he would never marry. Never. Royal sons did not marry. Period.
He’d been perfectly happy with that knowledge because he’d never experienced the attraction that men outside the royal family felt toward women. In fact, he’d enjoyed knowing he would not have to merge his life with a woman’s with the expectation of having to bed her.
His gaze flicked back and forth between Queen Giselle and Prince Efren before settling on the prince. Prince Efren had kept his eyes locked with the queen’s, but as if sensing Marcelo’s scrutiny, his head turned to reflect Marcelo’s regard.
Marcelo’s heart thudded so vigorously in his chest, surely everyone in the room must hear it. His respiration quickened. That single word uttered by Prince Efren had shattered Marcelo’s understanding of everything he knew about the world and had expected in his life.
Queen Giselle remained frozen for a few more moments, her brows drawn together as she processed the unexpected direction of this discussion. She cast a brief, apologetic glance toward Marcelo, then lifted her shoulders in a barely visible shrug. “The treaty does indeed use that word. Prince Efren, the choice is yours.”
Marcelo’s stomach dropped as her words echoed through the silent hall even though he’d known in his heart that she’d put Sheburat before her son’s individual concerns. So, he felt no personal betrayal. It was who is mother had to be.
Prince Efren continued to stare at Marcelo as he firmly stated, “I choose His Royal Highness, Prince Marcelo. The wedding will proceed tomorrow as planned.”
Marcelo swayed as the blood drained from his face. How could this be? How did such a marriage work? Would he be expected to—
“Marcelo?” Suky’s whispered tone voiced her concern. “Are you unwell?”
She repeated the words, but from farther away. Or did her voice only seem distant? He wobbled as the people around him faded, and then, thankfully, this nightmare all went away.
Copyright 2018 Addison Albright
BOOK 2: THE BEST-LAID PLANS
Chapter 3: …Oft Go Awry
Efren blinked rapidly as he came awake with a start. He
stared into the darkness and mentally shook the cobwebs from his mind. What had
awoken him? Marcelo lay softly breathing in his arms, as relaxed and peaceful
as only the innocent can truly be.
Around him, the night was silent. Too silent? He strained to
hear the patrols rustling through the grasses, or the faint trills of their
signals to each other.
A breeze swirled through the branches of the trees in the
distance, rippling the leaves. Crickets chirped, apparently unconcerned about
whatever either was or wasn’t going on in the meadow.
And footsteps. Quiet, approaching footsteps. It must be time
for the shift change. That’s what had
awoken him. Efren relaxed and nestled Marcelo tighter against him. One at a
time, the guards would come in and wake their replacements.
Except—Efren tensed, then maneuvered his arm out from under
Marcelo’s head and eased himself from under the blankets—the footsteps,
furtively stopping and restarting, were approaching from multiple directions.
Efren shivered as goosebumps rose on his naked skin in the
chilled night air and soundlessly slipped his broadsword and knife from their
leather scabbard. He glanced at Marcelo, still sleeping, although less serenely
with the sudden loss of the warm body next to him.
Guilt pinged his core as he shook off a strong desire to
waken and forewarn Marcelo, but he pushed it down. Marcelo, completely
untrained in warfare, would be safer in here. He seemed a heavy sleeper, likely
incorporating outside noises into his dreams, unused to a need to be readily
alert. He might even doze through the skirmish.
Or was that just wishful thinking? Because there’d be no
hope that Marcelo could escape unseen, if it came to that.
Surely it would be better for such an innocent to be killed
in his sleep, or with scarcely a brief moment of shock beforehand than to spend
minutes quaking in terror, unable to defend himself.
Efren shook off his doubts and quickly pushed out the weighty
flap, sword raised ready, and opened his mouth to yell an alert to awaken any
of his warriors who hadn’t already sensed the looming danger, same as he had.
But the breath he drew to strengthen his voice instead choked him.
He’d never before smelled these fumes, but the pungent,
wet-dog odor had been described to him. The material of their tents was heavily
treated to keep the toxin producing that odor from permeating the walls and
Icy apprehension slithered across Efren’s skin before
settling in the pit of his gut. This was a completely unexpected development. The
alchemists from the kingdom of Proye who’d developed this toxin—and unfailingly
guarded the recipe—called it “Knockout.”
As Efren’s sword arm dropped, followed swiftly by his eyes
rolling back in his head and his body slumping in a boneless crumple, a corner
of his brain recognized how fittingly it was named, and hoped that enough of it
had entered the tent through the briefly opened flap that Marcelo would succumb
before Proye agents executed whatever they had planned. They’d been married for
less than two days, and already he’d failed his innocent, young husband.
Copyright 2019 Addison Albright
BOOK 3: CHANGE OF PLANS
Chapter 1: Forget-Me-Not
Efren, Present Day
Efren, the crown prince of Zioneven, blinked himself awake and studied the soft curls of beautiful strawberry blond hair haloing the head of the young man slumbering in his arms. Seemed like Efren should have a headache if he’d drunk enough spirits to forget bringing this one home to his bed.
But his head didn’t ache, so his personal servant, Dru, must have brought the man in after Efren had fallen asleep. Except, Dru had only ever brought him a gigolo upon request before this, never as a surprise.
He blinked again and shook the remaining cobwebs out of his head. He’d probably forgotten about an earlier solicitation he’d made to Dru when he had drunk more spirts than he should—a habit he needed to break despite his desire to “forget” about his upcoming wedding.
Odd that Efren hadn’t woken up, but his subconscious must have known he was safe. Likely he’d come half-awake or worked the action into a now-forgotten dream. Obviously, he’d done enough for Dru to feel safe leaving the man with him.
Heat swirled through Efren’s bloodstream as his gaze traveled the length of that lithe body. He wasn’t fooled by the lean physique; strength and a combination of agility and flexibility likely simmered in those beautifully toned limbs.
A lovely surprise to wake up to. He would have to give Dru a bonus…along with a caution to verify Efren was truly and fully awake before leaving a man in his bed. He drew in a lungful of berry-scented hair mixed with a clean, masculine scent.
“Wake up, my lovely.” Efren gently shook the man’s shoulder and landed a light kiss to his forehead.
The man’s eyes didn’t open, but the movement of his lids gave the impression of blinking without actually taking a peek, and his body stiffened. Perhaps he wasn’t a professional, and waking up in a stranger’s bed, he would be scouring his memory, processing where he was and how he’d come to be here.
Efren ran a finger along the man’s jaw, then tipped up his chin for a proper, although still light, kiss. “Come, my lovely. Let’s make the most of this glorious morning, hmm?” He pressed his arousal against the man’s own to augment his words.
Stunning blue eyes that would beautifully reflect the Zioneven summer sky snapped open and stared in horror as if he were shackled in a Proye dungeon with Efren approaching, wielding instruments of torture.
Efren smiled reassuringly. Perhaps the young man had drunk more spirits than he was used to when he’d allowed Dru to coax him to Efren’s bed and couldn’t remember how he’d gotten here. But no, Dru would never bring him a man who was visibly drunk, so the man must be able to hold his liquor well, even if it eventually affected his recall.
“You are in friendly hands, my lovely. You are free to stay or go, whichever you’d rather.” Efren held his breath and cut off his desire to plead for the man to stay.
With wide, stricken eyes, the man pushed away and scrambled out of bed. Efren huffed a heavy sigh and ran a hand over his face. He hefted himself to a sitting position as the young man stumbled to where two sets of clothing lay folded across the backs of chairs.
What had Dru been thinking? Efren gave a mental shrug. This man must be one of those whose personality changed completely when he’d been drinking to be so horrified upon realizing what he’d agreed to while under the influence.
The man sifted through the garments as his breaths grew louder and quicker. His head swiveled as he searched Efren’s bedchamber. “Where is my clothing?” His voice wafted out from between quivering lips in a breathy whimper.
More beauty than brains, perhaps? “My lovely, I’m sure they must be the smaller of those two sets.” Efren’s tone was more sardonic than he would have liked, but it was too early in the morning to deal with this level of rejection before his first cup of tea.
The man shook his head. “Not mine.”
But he picked them up anyway and quickly but jerkily stepped into the smaller set of leather leggings before slipping the tunic over his head. His brows came together as he peered down at himself as if perplexed by the perfect custom fit.
Efren snorted, stood, pulled the bell rope to summon Dru, then stepped into his own pair of leather leggings. He held his shoulders back although his inclination was to slump. He was weary of this disappointing scene.
“As I said, my lovely, you are not a prisoner here. You need not panic so. I have plenty of enthusiastic partners available, and I feel no desire to force myself upon unwilling lovers who’ve changed their minds.” Efren waved a hand toward the door. “No doubt Dru knows to bring tea and toast for two in case you’re inclined to break your fast before rushing out, but you may leave now if you’d rather. Dru will show you out if you don’t remember the way.” Efren’s tone possibly conveyed his preference for the latter option, but basic civility and deeply ingrained diplomacy demanded he at least make a passing offer of refreshments.
The man’s breath quickened further, and he spun before rushing to the window to throw open the heavy draperies. The sun was reflecting off Zioneven’s majestic mountains to the northeast with the sun just clearing the horizon south of where the range tapered off.
Objectively a beautiful sight, but the man recoiled with an alarm that had ratcheted up several notches. He wobbled as he whirled in place. “Where—?” He gulped. “Who—?”
A twinge of concern prickled Efren’s neck. The man’s distress went beyond what one would expect from waking in a stranger’s bed.
Far beyond. He’d reacted as if the scenery was completely unfamiliar.
“Where are you from?” Efren asked.
“Where am I?” the man countered.
The door swung open, and Dru and another servant whom Efren didn’t recognize entered, bearing trays.
“Erich! Thank goodness!” The young man expelled a breath that also deflated some of the terror that had stiffened his slight frame.
“Sir?” Erich sedately placed his tray on a small table, and his brows raised in a manner that conveyed a calming, “How may I be of service,” rather than a reflection of the man’s panic.
“Yes, thank goodness.” Efren rolled his eyes and turned to Dru. “I appreciate the effort, Dru, but next time, please find a bed-warmer who isn’t so deep in his cups he won’t remember how he came to be here.”
Dru halted with his laden tray halfway down to another table. “Sir?” Dru’s brows, unlike Erich’s, came together over widened eyes. In fact, Erich’s countenance now mirrored Dru’s. They both stared at Efren with a concentration that brought Efren’s twinge of concern back to life…and amplified it.
Dru carefully laid the tray on the table and took a deep breath. “You don’t know one another?”
The worry in Dru’s eyes clearly conveyed that they should. They should each recognize the other.
Efren’s blood chilled as he and the mysterious man both shook their heads. Surely it wasn’t…no…it couldn’t be. That toxin was strictly outlawed, and nobody had dared use it in years.
Dru gulped and yanked the bell pull three times, signaling an alarm.
“No,” Efren whispered as he sat heavily on the edge of the bed.
“I’m sorry, sir.” Dru’s eyes mirrored his words. “I fear you’ve both been dosed with Forget-Me-Not.”
Forget-Me-Not was banned in all four realms with a very stiff penalty to anyone caught using it. It had originally been developed in Sheburat, but the formula had been discovered and also used by the monarchies in Zioneven, Gagel, and Proye. It hadn’t taken long for each to conclude that they were better off if they all agreed to ban its use.
Forget-Me-Not wiped a couple moon cycles worth of memories from its victims, activating during the first sleep after dosing. Those memories were never regained.
If a couple months had gone by since Efren’s last memory—which had been mere weeks before his journey to Sheburat for his upcoming nuptials—then he should be married to Sheburat’s Princess Marcela by now, sealing the final agreement of the two sovereignties’ peace treaty.
Efren shivered and stared at his hands. Sure enough, a ring was missing from his pinky finger, replaced by a new, unfamiliar ring.
He frowned. He was married. His shoulders did slump now, although he couldn’t complain too much about remembering neither that tedious journey nor the ceremony he’d been dreading. Dare he hope she was already with child so he no longer needed to force himself to go against his nature?
Still, who was this young man with the beautiful strawberry blond curls who stood with his clenched fist holding the top of his tunic closed. “What…what is ‘Forget-Me-Not’?”
The question seemed rhetorical, because the intelligence he’d written off too soon seeped out from behind those brightly shining eyes as the man’s mind worked toward the answer. An inevitable conclusion considering their current state of confusion, despite the drug’s name being a bit of a misnomer since forgetting was precisely what it accomplished.
With a gasp, Efren stared at the ring gleaming from the man’s third finger as he continued to grip the fabric at his neck. This man was wearing the ring that used to adorn Efren’s smallest finger.
There was only one possible explanation for that.
Efren stood, straightened his back, and neutralized his features, hoping to appear unthreatening as he crossed the room and took the man’s hands in his own.
“You must be Prince Marcelo,” Efren said. Apparently, Princess Marcela had died at some point during the month before the wedding, and the contingency plan had been put into place, allowing Efren to choose from amongst her younger siblings. Marcelo was a rare son—Marcela’s twin, younger by mere minutes—born to Sheburat’s matriarchal royal family. Unlike his sisters, eighteen-year-old Marcelo had been kept deliberately naïve and uninformed.
Efren ran his thumb over the ring on Marcelo’s finger and gestured to the ring adorning his own finger, which he expected Marcelo would recognize. “And I am Efren, the crown prince of Zioneven. It appears we are married.”
The intense focus that had overtaken Marcelo’s eyes as Efren approached him faded, and his eyes rolled back in his head. Efren’s heart leapt, but he managed to inelegantly catch his husband before the man’s now-limp body could drop to the floor.
After hefting Marcelo properly into his arms, Efren carried him to his—their—bed and carefully laid him on the mattress as the sound of many sets of running feet filled the castle’s corridors.
Efren trailed his fingers across Marcelo’s forehead and tenderly shifted wayward strands of hair that had fallen across his eyes. He swallowed the lump in his throat and murmured, “I hope you’ll forgive me for that ignominious second beginning to our relationship. Surely I was more respectful first time around.”
He sighed, and backed away, letting Dru explain as security personnel filed into the room.
Copyright 2021 Addison Albright