Do you like dragons? Strong shifters? Conflict? This might be the story you’ve always wanted…
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Contemporary, Gay Erotic Romance (MM), Romantic Suspense, Sci-Fi, Shifters, Paranormal
Word Count: 27,000
Heat Level: 3
Published By: Evernight Publishing
Prince Ryuu hates his father, Emperor Midian. When he’s forced to buy a slave, he defiantly chooses Drakon instead of a woman. Because he’s determined to overthrow his father’s empire, he can’t afford to show vulnerability, but Drakon is more compelling than he’d anticipated. For an Arethuza warrior, affection is a weakness that can lead to death.
Drakon isn’t really a slave—he’s a black dragon, considered cursed by everyone. Despite his people’s distrust, he will do anything to keep them safe, even submit to an Arethuza prince. He never expected to find love, and that complication could ruin his plans to sabotage the emperor’s war campaign. Though Ryuu is his fated mate, their fledgling bond is a secret too dangerous for Drakon to reveal.
Will their duty tear them apart? Can honor prevail in a war that might be too violent for even the strongest dragon warrior?
Chapter One Excerpt!
The scarlet awning snapped in the desert wind like a broken sensor—incessant and impossible to ignore. Prince Ryuu looked away as flecks of sand scoured his face. The Dragon’s Teeth Mountains loomed far to the east of the encampment, dark and serene. He wished he were there, amongst the peaked cliffs that formed the spine of the continent. He wished he were anywhere else but here.
“Pay attention, my son,” his father, Emperor Midian, said harshly. “You must choose your servant this day. My patience has run out.”
Ryuu composed his face and turned back to the slave auction, carefully hiding his distaste. It had been four centuries since his people had abolished slavery, yet here he stood, about to choose one for his personal use. It had only taken a few years for his father to dismantle the old laws of their nation and reinstitute the barbarism he enjoyed so much, though admittedly, the market for slaves was quite small. Most of the Arethuza found the practice distasteful. Even so, Ryuu didn’t know how much longer he could keep up the charade of being a loyal son. Soon he would have to make his move and break away from his father’s rule. His duty to his people was more important than his duty to his sire.
“Yes, Father,” he said, bowing slightly to appease the man. His gaze flicked to the mountains once more before he wrestled himself under control. Freedom was not an option he had the luxury to indulge. “I am merely contemplating my choices.”
The emperor grunted. “Enough. You are a grown man. A warrior. This hesitance is unbecoming.” He pointed. “Take that female, sitting next to the pole. She is beautiful and seems healthy.” He adjusted his polished leather armor and tucked his red cape over his shoulder.
The color of the cape clashed with the scarlet of the awning, but Ryuu knew his father didn’t care. He liked red. The color of blood. Ryuu wore black armor, for mourning. The color drove his mother to tears at times, but it suited his mood, most days.
“I need heirs. It is time for you to give them to me,” the emperor said.
Ryuu suppressed a sigh as he looked out over the bodies arranged on the ground beneath the tattered canvas that sheltered them from the harsh light of their sun. No silk fabric for them, he thought, pretending to consider the people being bought and sold like furniture. Truth was, he’d decided thirty minutes ago which man would be coming home with him. His father wouldn’t like it, but it was his decision to make.
“I will take the man with the dark hair. Near the center,” he said to the slave master. The man he chose couldn’t hear him over the wind, but Ryuu had a feeling the slave already knew he wouldn’t be at the auction long. As he watched, the wind whipped the man’s long, dark hair over his face, exposing fresh lash marks decorating the skin of his back. No, he will either escape, or die trying, Ryuu thought, frowning slightly. If only he could convince the man to work with him, instead of against him. If only he had the time…
The portly auctioneer stared at Ryuu, then looked to the emperor. Sweat ran down his round face, but he made no move to wipe it away from his shaved head and temples. Ryuu knew the man didn’t want to get embroiled in the midst of a royal argument. That way lay death.
Ryuu’s father scowled at his son. “You would take a man?”
Ryuu shrugged. “It is my choice. I have no need for a woman.”
Midian glared at his son, then turned away. “I am done with this. Choose as you like, and accept the consequences.” He shifted his sword against his hip. “I can breed other sons. I will have heirs from another woman, if you will not serve me in that manner.” With that extraordinary statement, he strode away, toward the flitter that waited next to the iron-barred goods warehouse.
Ryuu concealed a flinch. His father planned to abandon Ryuu’s mother? Because of his refusal to serve as a royal stud bull? The emperor’s cruelty still surprised him, even after growing up in the cesspool that was his father’s fortress and headquarters, the citadel. He’d need to find his mother and warn her the moment he returned. He pressed his lips together tightly, trying to hide his dismay.
“Prince?” The auctioneer bowed tentatively. “That slave is very difficult to control. Why, just this morning he damaged one of the other males and had to be whipped.”
Ryuu scowled, releasing his pent-up temper on the auctioneer. “And you think that I will have trouble with a mere slave?” He subtly fingered the row of knives that ran diagonally across his chest. He’d carefully nurtured a reputation for savagery with them—better to scare people with rumors than with actual blood. Many of his people believed him to be as bloodthirsty as the emperor and that protected him somewhat from his father’s personal warriors. If only the emperor understood the power of words instead of war, but his father had never been interested in peace. He enjoyed torture.
“No, Sire, of course not,” the man stammered, bowing lower. “It is just that he is not very…” He paused, clearly struggling to find words to describe a slave who still believed himself to be a man, and entitled to freedom.
Ryuu didn’t care about the auctioneer’s philosophical dilemma. He knew exactly what he was buying. “Chain him and bring him to my flitter,” he commanded. Then he turned on his heel and strode away.
Discouraged, Drakon watched the prince leave the buyer’s booth from the corner of his eye. If he believed in a deity, he would be praying with all his strength that Prince Ryuu would be the one who’d purchase him, but after seeing the man’s indifferent pose toward the slaves, he no longer harbored such a dream. The best he could hope for was if one of the emperor’s administrators bought him. Perhaps I’ll even end up in the citadel, he mused, digging his fingers into the sand beneath him. He could work from there to sabotage Emperor Midian’s bloodthirsty war campaign. Lost in thought, he resisted when the auctioneer suddenly strode over and tried to yank him to his feet by the chains around his wrists. Since Drakon was at least a foot taller and much stronger than the slave master, the pudgy man couldn’t budge him.
“None of that!” The bald man slapped his quirt against Drakon’s flank, hard enough to draw blood. “Prince Ryuu owns you now.” He frowned. “You will go quietly and respectfully, or he will slice the rebellion out of your skin in long strips. He’s a demon with those knives of his. They call him the Bearer of Blades.” The auctioneer smiled cruelly.
Drakon scrambled to his feet, dazed by his good fortune. The auctioneer, mistaking his surprise for recalcitrance, hit him again. Drakon ground his teeth together, reminding himself yet again that he’d chosen this course of action of his own free will.
“Do you want to be flayed?” the auctioneer demanded.
Drakon shook himself. Dust from his loincloth puffed into the hot air. “No.” From the rumors that circulated among the slaves, his mighty highness, Prince Ryuu, could strip most of the skin from a man’s body without killing him. Although, I have yet to speak to anyone who has witnessed Ryuu’s prowess with those blades. Sometimes rumors are more effective than true action, he mused, stumbling as the auctioneer pulled on his chains.
“The prince is leaving within the hour. You will obey him in all things,” the bald man said, absently dragging Drakon through the crowds of the market. They’d left the slave pens behind and Drakon could smell the savory scent of roasting meat. His mouth watered. He hadn’t eaten in four days.
“There will be none of your defiance, when you are in his custody. Is that clear?”
Drakon stared at the back of the creature’s fat head as he was dragged toward the fenced landing site. Damned if he was going to answer that statement. He was a man, not a child.
The auctioneer yanked on his chains viciously, nearly tripping Drakon. The metal bit into his wrists and he knew there would be fresh blood beneath the shackles.
“I expect a response!”
Drakon raised an eyebrow, willing the man to damage him further. He might need to play the part of a slave for now, but he was a free man. He deserved respect. Courtesy. You’re fooling yourself, a small voice at the back of his mind told him. You had no respect when you were back home, in your father’s household. Why would you think you deserve it now? Drakon shoved those thoughts down, refusing to give in to the despair that had dogged him all his life. I am a man. A warrior of my people, he reminded himself. I passed the test of the dragon and own my true form. And I am the only one of my generation to do so. Remember that.
The auctioneer raised his quirt again. Just as he was about to strike Drakon across the face, a voice interrupted.
“Halt! You dare to damage my property?”
The auctioneer pivoted, then immediately went to his knees. He pulled on Drakon’s bonds, forcing him down to the ground. Drakon broke his fall with his elbows, but the slave master tightened his grip on the chains, dragging him down further. He struggled to breathe as his cheek pressed into the packed sand.
“Forgive me, Sire,” the auctioneer said, trembling.
Drakon turned his head to the side just in time to see black armored boots stop less than a foot from his face. Swirls of dust decorated the insteps of Prince Ryuu’s footwear, and Drakon’s eyes wandered to a set of curious indentations in the front soles, where tiny blades no doubt resided. He shivered, wondering what sort of man would hide so many secret weapons on his body. Weren’t the ones on his chest harness enough?
“Give me the bonds,” Prince Ryuu said.
The auctioneer bowed lower. “Yes, Sire.” He lifted his arms, hauling on Drakon’s chains painfully.
Prince Ryuu took them and gently tugged. “On your feet,” he said softly.
Drakon licked his dry lips, suddenly afraid. The prince’s low voice sent a flicker of arousal through him, against all rational expectation. No. You can’t let your proclivities rule you, not now of all times, he thought desperately. He wanted this more than anything. He’d hoped all along for a place in the royal household, while knowing the chance that he might be purchased by one of Emperor Midian’s family members or a royal retainer was slim. That Prince Ryuu himself had bought him surpassed all his expectations. Control yourself, or you will ruin everything.
“Come on, then,” Prince Ryuu said, again tugging at the chains.
Drakon gathered his wits and stood up, trying to keep his thoughts to himself. Expressionless silver eyes met his. Ryuu’s shoulder-length blond hair had silver beads woven into the temples, breaking up the unrelieved black of the rest of his clothing and armor. Drakon’s fingers twitched. He would have liked to find out if the prince’s hair was as soft as it looked, but he remembered his status before he gave himself away. He lowered his eyes. Surprisingly, the prince was his height, unusual for the Arethuza. The hardships of their desert life usually prevented them from growing as tall as Drakon’s people.
“We leave now,” the prince said, pivoting abruptly and pulling Drakon to the gleaming silver flitter that waited just beyond the fencing.
When he reached the flitter, he touched a finger to a hidden stud. Light flashed, reading his genetic signature, and the canopy slid back, revealing the four seats within.
“Sit in the copilot’s seat,” Prince Ryuu told him, to Drakon’s surprise.
The prince wants me to sit next to him? It was unusual for an owner to trust a slave with such close proximity.
Prince Ryuu glanced at Drakon’s wrists and his face tightened before he dropped the heavy steel chains. The ends dragged in the sand. “You must carry your own bonds, like all of us.” He laughed shortly and climbed into the driver’s seat.
Drakon stared at the shackles, then looked into the flitter, confused. Ryuu’s behavior didn’t match the rumors of his cruelty. He picked up his chains and swallowed, hard, as Ryuu pressed buttons on the console, seemingly unconcerned with his new slave’s lack of confinement. The prince didn’t even glance at Drakon.
I could flee so easily, he thought, his gaze going to the mountains in the distance. Of course, if he ran now, he would not be able to complete his task. And, too, the flitter Prince Ryuu piloted could easily run a man down and fry him into ash. Only a dragon would have any hope of escaping the clutches of the Arethuza Empire. He sighed, then climbed into the vehicle.
“Glad you could join me,” Ryuu said sardonically.
Drakon pressed his lips together as the canopy slid closed above his head. Now was not the time to lose his temper. The leather seats and fresh air that immediately filtered into the small compartment was more luxury than he’d experienced in years. He tried not to feel bitter about what Prince Ryuu’s father had done to his people, the Soutx, but it was difficult.
“Do you have a name?”
Drakon looked at his captor, still silent.
Ryuu frowned. “I can simply call you, ‘Slave,’ if you wish.” His silver eyes appeared darker within the filtered light of the flitter.
“Drakon,” he blurted out before he could stop himself. His face burned and he once again fought down anger. The Soutx, the People of the Dragon, weren’t slaves. Drakon would never truly be any man’s property, regardless of the chains and whippings he might endure.
“Ah,” Ryuu said mildly, just when Drakon thought the prince would rebuke him for his tone.
The flitter lifted from the sand and sped to the west, toward the crystal fields. Drakon stared through the glass, wondering what torment he’d brought upon himself.