DESPITE THE cold, the men had stripped off their shirts. Their swords glinted in the sun, and their breath came in puffs of white clouds, as though they were breathing fire. There’d been weapons demonstrations and mock fights all day. There would be feasting all night.

Nikko glanced up at the clear blue winter sky. The frost that embraced the earth at dawn had melted long before lunch, and the sun was falling on the shortest day of the year.

This was the last battle, and the king’s son, Fortin, was fighting his cousin. Unlike the other fights, this one was staged. The winner would be Fortin.

Nikko was no swordsman. He knew enough to fend off an equally unskilled thief, but even he could tell Fortin’s strikes were sloppy. His footwork lacked grace, and his face was plastered with a dull smirk, as though he thought everyone around him a fool.

In front of Nikko, the king grunted and shifted in his seat, no doubt uncomfortable with his son’s lackluster performance. Nikko switched his attention to the king’s nephew, Rodas.

Usually he tried not to look at Rodas too closely, so he delighted in watching his lover openly today. Rodas’s dark hair was drawn back in a long braid. His focus was absolute, and there was no casual smile on his lips. It was the face of a warrior. While Nikko was familiar with his scars, seeing Rodas fight made his heart beat a little harder and his blood run a little hotter.

To Nikko’s left, someone whispered about one of the battles Rodas had led and won. Nikko had hung on to every bit of news about the border wars while Rodas was away. He’d returned a hero and almost everyone loved him.

Fortin had gone to war, but he stayed safe behind the lines—too valuable to risk on the field. Or was it no one would follow him, even if he tried to lead?

The muscles on Rodas’s back bunched and flexed with each parry and strike. His feet moved through the complicated footwork of the fight. Nikko had watched him dance many times and been jealous of all of his partners, male and female. But that jealousy only lasted until Rodas came to his chamber to spend part of the night.

They’d been sneaking around for three years. For a time it was exciting. Now it rasped over Nikko’s skin like a rough blade. He wanted more.

He couldn’t have more.

Especially not with a man of royal blood.