Chapter One

 

THE KING died on a Friday.

It wasn’t expected—there was no long illness or slow decline in general health. One moment he was as active and spry as a gryphon of nine hundred years could expect to be, enjoying some stunt flying in the open spaces of northern Québec—or so Eirian had heard. The next, the entire kingdom of gryphons, spirits, dragons, and the other mythos races was in mourning.

And Eirian found himself on a plane headed to Montréal not thirty-six hours after the inauspicious event.

Although he mourned with the rest of the kingdom, the Council told him to pack his bags, that Crown Prince Luca had decided to forego the interview portion of the consort selection process and chose Eirian based on the Council’s interview conducted some months earlier. He’d expected the selection process to take at least a year and the wedding to happen another handful of years down the road. It would have given him plenty of time to prepare and plenty of time to adjust to becoming the king’s consort.

That plans had changed spoke to how uncertain the future seemed and the potential for political instability. The kingdom loved Luca, and from the murmurs Eirian heard before he boarded the plane, everyone believed he would be a good king. But it hurt to lose King Arran so suddenly, so tragically. Gryphons weren’t supposed to die unexpectedly except in times of war, and even then, bringing down a gryphon was not a simple task. Many couldn’t comprehend how an accident had stolen their beloved king.

Eirian gripped the armrest as the plane jolted forcefully enough to remind him he was in a metal tube hurtling through the clouds at an insane speed. As though he could forget.

Mother, he hated planes. Give him an open sky and his own wings any day. Alas, flying from Vancouver to Montréal under his own power would take time they didn’t have. Luca’s coronation—and their marriage—was set for the next day.

“You’re going to rip the seat to pieces,” his bond brother, Keefe, murmured as he leaned close.

“Then they should build them better. Or avoid turbulence altogether.” Eirian sighed and concentrated on relaxing his fingers. “How much longer?”

“About fifteen minutes less than when you last asked me.” Keefe patted Eirian’s hand and retrieved a People magazine from his bag. “Here. Did you read this interview with His Highness?”

Eirian wrinkled his nose. “Those interviews are usually full of nonsense.”

Keefe made a noncommittal sound. “Sometimes. But this one is pretty good. If you spend fifteen minutes reading it, we’ll be fifteen minutes closer.”

“Fine,” Eirian said with a groan. Anything to distract himself. He should have brought his laptop in his carry-on, but they were in such a rush to get out the door for the last-minute flight that he packed it in his luggage. He absently pushed his glasses up on his nose and dove into the article.

The pictures were the highlight. No one could argue that his soon-to-be husband wasn’t handsome in his human form. His olive skin all but glowed. He kept his thick dark brown hair longish—to right above his collar. Eirian suspected it was to camouflage his slightly too large and prominent ears—and that minor imperfection and the vulnerability he exhibited trying to mask it were among the things that made Eirian eager to become his consort. Another was Luca’s unwavering desire to be a good king, which was evident in every interview he gave. Like all gryphons, Luca’s eyes were a shade of amber brown, more golden than dark, but they never looked truly warm in any picture Eirian had seen. Circumstances or personality?

Luca knew how to pose to his best advantage. The photographer had caught him in a casual, contemplative moment, leaning against a neat russet-colored barn as he looked off into the distance. He wore ruggedly casual clothing—dark jeans with heavy leather boots topped with an off-white cable-knit fisherman’s sweater and an artfully battered brown leather jacket. The quality of the clothes was apparent in the way they hugged his body.

No… handsome didn’t quite go far enough.

After a moment Eirian tore his gaze away from the images and focused on the words that accompanied them. The interview was similar to others Eirian had read as he attempted to get to know the crown prince by proxy. There were the questions about his background and being a gryphon that were typical in every interview. Was it true that all gryphons shared the same surname? Yes, but only humans use our surname, Deiorio. Was he really more than two centuries old? Yes. How had the world changed in that time? In uncountable ways, most of which are covered in the history books. Would he prefer to live now or back in the era of his childhood? Smartphones only exist now, so…. And so on. Eirian was surprised and intrigued at the unconcealed snark in Luca’s answers.

But then the questions veered in an interesting direction.

People: A few months ago, the Council of the Mythos Kingdom—the advisory body of gryphons and the mythos races—began the process of arranging a marriage for you. Can you tell us a little about that?

Prince Luca: Of course. Arranged marriages are common among royalty—even in human society, I believe.

People: What kind of gryphon would be your perfect match?

Prince Luca: One who shares my belief that royalty serves the people, not the other way around.

People: That’s a very modern way of thinking.

Prince Luca: Is it? In the Golden Kingdom—the Mythos Kingdom, as you humans call it—this is how it’s always been, perhaps because the Court and Council, our government, elects our princes and kings. It’s not a hereditary station.

People: Because you don’t have a family-based society.

Prince Luca: That’s right. All gryphons are born on Soladoro, the island in the Mediterranean where our race began. We’re raised there by the priestesses until we’re ten years of age, at which point the males—who outnumber females by about ten to one—are fostered out to the territories that make up our kingdom. The females remain on the island to join the other priestesses.

People: Many humans don’t understand this societal structure. To us it seems impersonal or even cold.

Prince Luca: It’s simply different. Gryphons are pansexual, meaning we can be sexually attracted to any gender, to any mythos, or to humans. However, we are homoromantic—male gryphons form pair bonds with other males, females with females. Both mythos and human researchers have surmised that this resulted due to the uneven male-to-female ratio. We come together to procreate at a yearly event, but otherwise, we live separate lives. Blood relations mean nothing to us.

People: Is King Arran like a father to you?

Prince Luca: I have no frame of reference for such a thing. He is a dear friend—my mentor and my guide—and that’s enough for me.

People: Back to your ideal match….

Prince Luca: Right. If you’re looking for me to name off physical characteristics I find attractive, I’ll have to disappoint you. Appearance means little to me. I want a consort who will be my partner and help me rule, rather than someone who merely looks good on my arm. He must also be politically savvy, adaptable, and know his own mind. Which faction he follows is of no consequence, though my advisors suggest I choose a modernist.

People: Modernist? Can you explain that?

Prince Luca: Within the Golden Kingdom, we have two factions—traditionalist and modernist. Traditionalists such as myself feel that the Golden Kingdom should not interfere in the world of man any more than necessary. We live intertwined with you, since our kingdom is based on our people and not boundaries drawn on a map, but we should remain separate. We’re well aware that we can be frightening on our worst days and overwhelming on our best, and we care enough about humans to minimize our contact in order to preserve the peace that was so hard won three centuries ago. The modernist faction, however, believes that integration is essential to long-term peace between our peoples. I’m not convinced that’s the case.

Eirian skimmed over the sidebar, which provided details about the Golden War for the benefit of human readers. All mythos knew the history of how they came to be revealed to the human world. It started with the escalating European witch hunts in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which persecuted humans for consorting with “devils.” They had been trusted allies of the Golden Kingdom who helped mythos live undetected within human society. Eventually attention turned to the devils themselves—the mythos—and King Arran was forced to marshal the armies at his command to go to war with the humans. It hadn’t been a popular decision—many mythos argued against it, stating they had remained hidden for thousands of years, known to the humans only in legends and myths, and that kept them safe. But Arran was not willing to allow his people to be slaughtered with no answer and no repercussions.

The Golden War lasted fifty years. Humans had numbers and weapons on their side, but the mythos did not need huge armies to fight hard and make an impact. Some mythos had devastating abilities, and more than once, a battle was won due to a single soldier under King Arran’s command. The war finally ended when both sides realized it was unwinnable. A treaty signed in 1713 specified how mythos and humans would live together and yet separate, since no mythos race claimed a country or even a region for itself. As a concession to European leaders at the time, King Arran agreed to set his seat of power in the New World, outside of the settlement called Ville-Marie, which later became Montréal, Québec, Canada.

PeopleBut if your betrothed is a member of the modernist faction, how will you handle your philosophical differences?

Prince Luca: I hope through open-minded discussion. We should get along just fine… as long as he doesn’t try to change me.

Though the piece didn’t offer much in the way of insight, the discussion about Luca’s future consort was not something he’d seen in other interviews. That was probably the reason Keefe suggested he read it. Seeing Luca’s opinions in text and knowing he matched a great deal of what Luca was looking for was reassuring—to an extent. How much of it was spin? How much of it was truth? There was no way to tell until he met him. And what did Luca mean by the “as long as he doesn’t try to change me” comment? There were going to be some changes. That was the reality of marriage, particularly between people whose political views differed so extensively. Eirian expected he wouldn’t be immune to change either. Was that line a subtle warning? Should he be wary?

By the time they arrived at the royal estate in upscale Senneville, to the west of Montréal, Eirian could barely tell up from down. He’d had no sleep once the news of the king’s death broke, certainly not on the torture device known as an airplane—particularly not when a technical glitch prevented them from deplaning for two hours after they landed in Montréal. Normally levelheaded, Eirian could feel his patience fraying.

The king’s estate reminded Eirian of castles he’d seen in Europe—though on a smaller scale. Clad in multihued river stone, the manor stretched three stories toward the bright blue spring sky. A turret capped each corner of the front façade. Another structure extended to the right of the main house—Eirian couldn’t tell if it was a garage or additional living space. Bare branches of ivy spidered across the stone, which would only add to the old-world feel of the place once spring brought renewed foliage.

And on the imposing front step stood Luca, stealing any hope that Eirian would be able to freshen up and regroup before he met his fiancé for the first time.

Luca looked even more delicious in person than he had on the pages of the magazine. He was dressed in casual but elegant clothing similar to the outfit he wore for the photoshoot—dark jeans with brown leather boots poking out beneath the cuff, and a thick heather-gray sweater that complemented his olive skin tone. No jacket this time. His hair was swept back behind his ears in its usual style, and his golden eyes were piercing.

“I’ll get the bags,” Keefe murmured as he slipped out of the car.

Suddenly Eirian didn’t want to get out. He was wrinkled and travel-worn, and he probably stank, thanks to his imprisonment in the tin can on the runway. His hair was mussed from running his hands through it too frequently—a habit that came out when he was stressed—and he felt grimy and gross. Staring at his impeccably dressed fiancé wasn’t helping matters either. Reality was all too real at the moment. Tomorrow he would be married to this man he didn’t know.

What if they didn’t like each other? What if Eirian couldn’t convince Luca to open his mind and see different ways of thinking? What if—

Something tapped the window. Eirian jerked back and swallowed as he looked up into the eyes of his fiancé. Despite their warm golden-brown hue, there was no welcome in them. In fact he looked as tired as Eirian felt.

“Will you be disembarking, or shall I fetch tea for you to enjoy where you are?” Luca’s voice was muffled by the glass barrier between them, but it was still much deeper than Eirian had expected. It… rumbled, though with amusement or annoyance, Eirian couldn’t tell.

Eirian found a smile but was only able to maintain it for a moment as he triggered the door release. Luca stepped back, the picture of grace, and Eirian felt like a gangly youth in comparison as his limbs threatened to give out on him.

“My apologies, Your Highness.” He bowed his head once he was standing next to the car. “It was a long flight.”

“Hmm.” The sound could be judgmental or noncommittal. Eirian didn’t know enough about Luca to make a guess. “Long flights are a necessary evil some days.”

And what did that mean? Was it a commiseration? Or a verbal nudge that Eirian should not let such things get to him? Mother, he hadn’t felt so unsettled around someone since he was a youngling.

“We were delayed on the tarmac,” Eirian added as he adjusted his glasses. “Which is why we’re late. It… ah, it wasn’t pleasant.”

“We were informed of the delay.”

Silence dropped upon them and grew heavier with each passing second. Eirian found it difficult to keep his eyes on any one thing as his discomfort increased. Looking at Luca without speaking was… odd. Staring at the house seemed even stranger. And watching the ground was the activity of someone who lacked confidence. That wasn’t Eirian… usually. Right then all he could think was that he must be making a horrible first impression, but he was too tired and stretched too thin to drum up an intelligent solution.

He had to say something. Anything.

“Uh… this is my attendant, Keefe, Your Highness.” Attendant sounded better than bond brother. He didn’t want Luca to think he couldn’t travel without the company of his chosen family. To emphasize his words, he swung a hand in Keefe’s direction and almost knocked Luca in the chest. His gaffe did nothing to calm his nerves. “He’s, uh, never been to Montréal.”

“Oh.” Luca nodded to Keefe and turned his attention back to Eirian. “Have you?”

“Have I what?”

“Been to Montréal before.”

“Oh.” Eirian laughed too loudly. “No. It’s… cold.”

Luca raised a brow. “Well, it is March.”

“Right. Right.” Eirian nodded.

Luca angled his body toward the man next to him—a gryphon old enough to have acquired lines at the corners of his dark brown eyes, silver at his temples, and a translucent element to his sepia-toned skin. Eirian hadn’t even realized he was there. “This is Orel, chairman of the Golden Council.”

Eirian held out a hand before he realized Luca had not offered a handshake, and Orel didn’t seem to expect one either. Right. Handshakes were a modernist gesture, adopted from the human world. Orel looked at Eirian’s hand until Eirian slowly brought it back to his side. Nerves tumbled through his stomach.

“Charmed,” Orel said drily.

“Pleased to meet you.”

“I had not expected you to be so—” Orel paused. “—young.”

Eirian clenched his fists at his sides. “I assure you, I may not have reached the official maturitas marker, but—”

Orel dismissed his words with an impatient wave. “Yes, yes. I’ve read everything about you. I sat on the board that selected you, after all.” He swept a derisive gaze over Eirian, wordlessly suggesting that he regretted his choice.

That was not how Eirian wanted to meet his intended, Mother help him. He had pictured it as a happy affair, a relaxed encounter. They would sit and chat, perhaps have tea. If nothing else, Eirian felt confident in his ability to connect with Luca through his thirty years of work with the Haser Territory Council—surely there would be some common ground between a territorial council and the one Luca worked with at the kingdom level. It was all government, right?

But in that moment, Eirian knew he came across like a fool. Unprepared, uncouth. Dare he suppose unattractive, as well? His hand trembled as he reached up to run it through his hair, but he brought it back down to his side before he could complete the action. Hades. He couldn’t even calm his bad habits.

His extremities suddenly grew cold—then his stomach clenched and fire shot through his limbs, making his frigid fingers burn. Oh… oh no. He should have guarded against the possibility, but it had been years. He’d thought himself well past the age where—

Another spasm stole his breath, but he managed to gasp, “M-might I be shown to my rooms, Your Highness?”

“You and His Highness have much to discuss,” Orel countered. “Perhaps tea in the sitting room?”

“No, I—I must insist on seeing my rooms,” Eirian said through gritted teeth.

Luca frowned. “Is everything all right?”

“It—it was a long flight, and the delay on the tarmac—”

Orel huffed. “Yes, we’re well aware of the—”

Eirian hissed—an altogether too feline sound—as his fingernails suddenly turned into claws. His vision sharpened, and the colors of the landscape grew more muted even as objects themselves became more defined.

Luca stepped back. His expression no longer bore any resemblance to concern. “Did you… partially shift?”

Eirian wanted to sob with frustration, but he daren’t release his control even that much. It was bad enough that his hands and eyes had slipped toward his feline form. A full shift into his massive gryphon form would be an unforgivable breach of etiquette.

Keefe came to his rescue, wrapping an arm around Eirian’s shoulders and pulling him close. “As he said, it was a long flight, plus the delay, and neither of us was expecting to be ambushed on our arrival,” he stated angrily.

Orel narrowed his eyes. “I beg your pardon.”

“I had thought you merely overeager to meet your fiancé, Your Highness,” Keefe continued, “but now I see you were more interested in making him as uncomfortable as possible.”

“Keefe,” Eirian murmured. “Enough.”

Keefe squeezed Eirian’s shoulders, a gesture Eirian knew was both reassurance and compliance. “His quarters, Your Highness?” The title was spoken as though it were a curse and not an honor.

“My majordomo will show you.” Luca gestured to the manor’s entrance.

With Keefe’s encouragement, Eirian stumbled in that direction, his hold on his human form growing with every step away from his fiancé. It was a hard-fought battle, but he managed to halt his shift by the time they passed the threshold of the manor. The effort took a great deal of energy, and Keefe was all but holding him up as they slowly followed the majordomo, who introduced himself as Ivo, up the stairs. Eirian’s legs felt like jelly, and he was vaguely thankful Ivo was both clothed and, unlike many of his kin, not walking around with a permanent erection. At the moment, with his thoughts soft and blurry, it seemed like an important thing to dwell upon.

“That could have gone better,” Keefe murmured softly so Ivo couldn’t hear.

“It could have gone worse too.”

“Not by much, though.”

“No.” Eirian sighed. “Not by much at all.”