To Poison a Prince – Prologue

Marriage changes a man.

Darshan had heard those words from the lips of so many that he had forgotten who first spoke them to him. Probably Grandfather. The man had been catty enough to utter such statements, usually addressed to his own son. The phrase was often uttered to Darshan in the hopes of having him take that heinous leap towards marrying this or that noblewoman.

He never would’ve considered they were actually right. Even the thought of admitting such out loud rather brought upon the urge to scoff at his younger self. How arrogant he’d been to believe he had understood the world.

What he wished he had done back then was ask a simple question to those platitude-spewing faces. How so? Maybe then he might’ve had an answer as to why his sleep, which had once resembled that of the dead, was now disturbed at the slightest jostle of his husband.

Like right now.

Groaning, Darshan rolled over. Every morning, ever since they had left his Hamish’s homeland, he awoke to the same hurried attempt of the man dressing. He had hoped it would’ve gotten better the further they travelled from the Tirglasian border.

It hadn’t.

Sitting up, Darshan groped for his glasses even as he squinted into the darkness. Gods, it’s not even dawn. The moon was high, although barely a crescent. The lack of light hampering his attempts to distinguish Hamish’s figure creeping across the floor. Even his glasses didn’t do much to help.

His ears picked up the gentle rustle of clothes being gathered from wherever they had flung them during last night’s frenzied striping as they made for the bed. His husband’s frantic panting dominated the otherwise silent inn room.

Darshan extended his hand and summoned a small globe of light to balance on his palm, increasing the orb’s brightness until the walls were bathed in its glow. It threw stark shadows across everything, warping their lines. Including that of his husband.

“Hamish?” Darshan whispered. With that broad-shouldered back turned to him, there was no actual way to tell if the man wasn’t getting dressed in his sleep. He hadn’t been during the last umpteen times he had woken Darshan this way, but there was always a first.

The bulk of his husband straightened at the address. The shadow he threw engulfed half the far wall. He whirled about, his sapphiric eyes wide and glistening with fear. His ragged panting lessened but didn’t fade completely. It could’ve been the stark lighting, but the usual brown shade of his skin seemed a touch on the grey side.

“Another nightmare?” Darshan kept his voice light. Hard to do when the foreign words sat so thickly on his tongue, but his husband responded to his native Tirglasian language far better when in this state.

There had been so many nightmares over the weeks. Ghostly mockeries of the oppressive life Hamish had been forced to live for so many years. How Darshan wished he could pluck them free and gift the man some measure of rest.

“Aye.” His husband’s admission came on the wings of a blustering, teary sigh.

“The bear again?” Darshan dreaded those nightmares the most. Even speaking the word conjured the image of his husband lying broken and bleeding in the beast’s jaws.

Hamish shook his head, the coils of unbound orange-red hair swaying at the motion. Deceptively, they tumbled just to the middle of the man’s back, but were long enough to reach his backside when pulled straight. “Worse. Me mum…” Giving a tear-rattling sniff, he turned his back on Darshan. “You— She— I dreamt she had… had—”

The soft, sibilant hiss of a hush that escaped Darshan’s lips was out before he could think. He slid across the mattress, slowly so as not to startle the man, and sat on the edge. “Come here, mea lux.” He patted the blankets, ignoring the slight grittiness that coated his fingers.

Hamish responded woodenly, settling on the bed with a rather hefty thud.

Darshan’s fingers brushed the man’s light undershirt, the thin fabric already damp with sweat despite being recently donned. He shuffled behind Hamish to wrap his arms around the broad shoulders. “It is all right,” he mumbled into his husband’s neck. This close, the rapid beat of Hamish’s heart was palpable. “You are safe. This is real. I am real and very much alive. We are far from her influence.”

The body in his grasp shuddered. “Dar…”

“Hush.” He wrapped his legs around Hamish’s waist, holding tight lest the hairy beast of a man decided he knew better. “Just be still for a bit. Let your body calm down.”

The muscles under his arms stiffened. “But—”

“I said, hush.” He burrowed his face into the man’s neck, seeking the damp skin to smother it in little kisses. His lips brushed the puckered scars adorning this side. The puncture marks of bear fangs. “I am not going anywhere. And no one is coming to spirit you away. I promise.”

Hamish took a deep breath and sighed. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled.

Darshan pressed his lips together, trying not to let his irritation show. It wasn’t Hamish’s fault that waking in a room other than his own quarters set off a once very real fear of being dragged away by his mother’s guards to be imprisoned like a wayward child. “There is nothing to forgive, mea lux.”

There had to be a way to rid Hamish of this lingering terror. They would find it. Together.

“I didnae mean to wake you.”

“I’m a light sleeper,” he purred in his own tongue. It wasn’t entirely a lie. Even if it hadn’t been true his whole life, it was now. Thank the gods for small mercies. Who knew where Hamish would wind up before common sense got the best of him if Darshan never woke to calm him? “Sleep is overrated, anyway.” His gaze drifted to the window. Still no sign of dawn. “Would you prefer an early start?” It would give them a great deal of time on the road. “We could reach Nulshar’s gates by midday.” Perhaps they could even book passage on a lakeship and be across the Shar before anyone in the city, like his half-sister, noticed their arrival.

This bit of news was greeted by silence.

“ ‘Mish?”

Again, Hamish sighed. This time, it was weary. “I dinnae understand why you’re so eager to reach Minamist. You cannae expect me to believe your father will be pleased about you marrying me.”

No. Not pleased would be an understatement. His father, Emperor of all Udynea and mighty hammer of the south, would be furious. Not only for Darshan’s impertinence to marry a man when there was no sign of an heir forthcoming, but also for the distinct lack of announcement or even an alliance with Tirglas. Nor would there be until another took the Tirglasian throne as Hamish’s mother had been on the brink of threatening war before disowning her son.

Darshan patted his husband’s chest. “Let me worry about that.” It was going to take a fair bit of talking to convince his father that an endless supply of assassins couldn’t fix what he would no doubt be seen as Darshan’s blatant disregard of his duties. Hopefully, he could placate his father with his plans for an heir. It was what everyone had always wanted from him, after all. “Instead, let us focus on getting you back into bed.”

“I’ll nae be able to sleep,” Hamish mumbled. Nevertheless, he followed Darshan’s guiding hands and slipped beneath the covers.

“Just lie there.” Darshan fussed with the blankets, ensuring Hamish was tucked in before snuggling against him. Lying at Hamish’s back, he was suddenly confronted by just how much of a climb his husband was to a rather less gigantic form such as himself. Hamish’s body had been moulded from years of archery and it definitely showed in the definition of his shoulders. “This looked rather different in my head.”

Chuckling, Hamish rolled over. “I’m nae one for lying on me side anyway. Come here.” He wriggled his arm beneath Darshan’s head before curling it around a shoulder.

A small, contented sigh slipped from Darshan’s lips. His husband might not have any great strength when it came to magic, but the warm press of his embrace definitely made up for it.

He smoothed back his husband’s hair, not an easy task as the fiery-red coils failed to heed all but Hamish’s ministrations. Very much unlike Darshan’s own brown curls that actually did go where they were told.

“You know, I fell for you the first time I saw you,” Darshan murmured in his own tongue, attempting to fill the air and get the man’s mind off his nightmare.

He thought back to the day they had first met, barely a few months ago. Before his arrival at Tirglas, he had despaired taking up the task of ambassador—and not only because of the dreadful journey across the rocky seas. Tirglas was a land where the locals were suspicious of both him and his magic. The only relief to the idea of being surrounded by people had been in the hope that the trade negotiations would’ve been swift.

Then he had clapped eyes on Hamish and had forgotten all about his duties.

The deep rumble of his husband’s laughter vibrated through the bed. “Even with the bloody mess I’d been in?” Hamish had arrived late. Too much so to properly greet what his husband had expected would be a Udynean countess. Consequently, he had entered the castle courtyard still splattered with pig’s blood from hunting down a rogue boar for a neighbouring farmer.

“Even standing there like a vengeful god.” Darshan caressed Hamish’s jawline, mindful of his rings so they didn’t snag in the man’s thick beard. “As soon as I looked into your eyes.” Like gems. He used to find the comparison ridiculous, but it was true. The bluest aquamarine. One look was all it had taken to dazzle him. “And I knew, I had found my light.”

Their bodies bounced further as another huff of laughter snorted out Hamish’s nose. “Fortunate that I prefer men then, isnae it?”

He grinned. “Oh, I’m sure I could have persuaded you otherwise.”

Scoffing, Hamish rolled his eyes. “Even if I’d been married? With children?”

Darshan’s throat tightened. That would’ve been Hamish’s fate a long time ago had the man been at all inclined towards any woman. “It would not have been the first time I slept with a married man,” he mumbled. Or betrothed ones. Being the vris Mhanek and heir to the empire, quite a few men in the Crystal Court were more than eager to offer up their bodies in the hope of garnering his favour.

 “Really?

Darshan sat up, leaning on his outstretched arm. “You think that wouldn’t have happened? I am quite the whore.” Even though he never gave a single soul his word, never mind anything of substance, that he chose to indulge in whatever took his fancy had rather been a bone of contention for his father.

Still, overstepping the boundaries had seen him sent to Tirglas as an ambassador. Where he had landed right into Hamish’s arms and thrown a wasp’s nest into the man’s world.

“Nae anymore.” Hamish rolled over, pinning Darshan beneath him. “I’ve made an honest man out of you, remember?”

Darshan chuckled to himself. “That you have.” Him? Married? His father was barely going to believe it. “I guess I shall have to leave a slew of broken-hearted men in our wake.”

“There’ll nae be too many of them, I hope.”

“A stubborn few.” There were always those who believed they could get a little extra if they just pushed hard enough. He caressed Hamish’s side, curling over the bulk to rub deep circles beneath the shoulder blade. “Or maybe they’ll understand once they see you.”

A soft moan gusted from Hamish’s lips. He dropped his shoulder, the act gifting Darshan a better angle to keep massaging to the accompaniment of Hamish’s sighs. One sapphiric eye cracked open to peer at Darshan. “Have I ever told you how glad I am you didnae listen to me about competing for me hand?”

Many times. Darshan didn’t think he would ever tire of hearing it, for it meant Hamish had no regrets about confronting his mother, Queen Fiona, or the disownment and exile she had lashed back with. “I never would have left you there, mea lux.” The mere thought of walking away and allowing Hamish’s mother to subject him to a life of matrimony with a woman the man didn’t want…

He couldn’t think of it any further.

He wound his limbs around Hamish, pulling him closer and not caring how his chest objected to the suddenness of his husband’s weight landing on him. Hamish moulded to him so well that it was hard to picture him being anywhere else.

“Do you ever think that…?” Hamish mumbled into Darshan’s shoulder. “That maybe I… succumbed to me injuries and this is actually me afterlife?”

Darshan pushed his husband back far enough to see Hamish’s face. “If you had, then that would have to mean I perished alongside you.” They didn’t often talk about that fateful morning. It brought on too many painful memories. He ran his hands up his husband’s neck, seeking the scars adorning either side. The remnants of wounds that had nearly taken Hamish’s life.

The memory of the attack flashed through his mind. Of Hamish dying beneath the bear, too far gone to scream. Of how the beast still tore into him. How the stench of burning fur and flesh filled the air as Darshan retaliated to the attack. Then there was only the red pulse of his husband’s blood flowing onto the forest floor and the searing torture of Darshan draining the life from the surrounding land, straddling the line between acceptable and forbidden magic, all to bring Hamish back from the brink.

Saving his husband’s life had been no small feat. But he would do it all again if necessary.

“If this is what comes after,” Darshan murmured, trying to keep his voice light. “Then your Goddess is terrible to make you travel months on the road, especially in this weather.” After the fine weather that had greeted their arrival to Udynea, only spring showers had dominated the skies. “One of our gods would’ve immediately had you sitting in the lap of luxury.”

“Or all this travelling is a penance for seeking to take me own life.” Smiling mirthlessly, Hamish patted Darshan’s flank, the slap of his palm on bare flesh rather loud. “Come on, let go of me.”

Darshan relented, unwinding himself from the man. “Quite right, we should be on our way.” Home awaited, after all. It would take some weeks to reach the imperial capital.

And face his father’s disapproval in his heir.