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I saw him in my dreams again.
I stirred awake as the early morning sunlight shone through the expansive windows of my personal library, flooding the room in a heavenly glow. Rays of soft light caressed the intricately carved floor-to-ceiling wood bookcases, and I stretched on the plush couch, it’s length and width large enough for my great bear shifter frame. The couch, like the rest of my artfully detailed furniture, had been designed specifically for me by the royal carpenter. I marveled at its beauty every day, awed that someone could create such exquisite art with their hands.
Speaking of exquisite…
For the third time this week, I dreamt of my mysterious stranger. A smile slipped onto my face at the thought of him, his warmth and kindness. The love that flowed from him left me speechless every time I held him in my arms. I groaned again, rolling onto my back to stare at the ceiling. Why was this happening to me? For months now I’d had the most amazing dreams. Problem was, I had no idea who the guy in my dream was. I didn’t even know if he was a shifter. For some reason, when I woke, I couldn’t remember what he looked like—as if his identity was being kept from me, and I couldn’t understand why. Had I met him before? He seemed so real. Why couldn’t I see his face?
Rolling onto my side with a huff, I closed my eyes, allowing myself a few more minutes of peaceful slumber. I must be losing it. It was merely a dream—a wonderful, beautiful dream. I’d about drifted off again when a thunderous clatter that seemed to quake the floors of the palace startled me so badly I jolted forward. Running out of couch, I flailed before hitting the floor with a heavy thud. This was not how I wanted to start my day. Maybe if I ignored it, it would go away. I groaned and let my brow rest against the thick carpet until another crash of something falling echoed outside my door.
“Goddess, help me,” I growled, scrambling to my feet so quickly I tripped and nearly fell headfirst into the heavy wooden door. Just what I needed before coffee—to knock myself out.
“When I get my hands on you…” I threw open the door and listened, quickly pinpointing the direction the destruction traveled. Taking off without so much as another thought to my bare feet and chest, I thundered down the stairs at the end of the corridor. Two fluffy black blurs forced me to jump back or be plowed over, their screeches filling the early morning air. “What did I say about shifting indoors,” I shouted after them, taking off in a run. This madness wouldn’t end until I caught at least one of the two fuzz balls.
Pounding after them, I dodged toppled tables and furniture, flying vases and pillows. Fortunately, while they lumbered on their four little legs, I was faster on my two long ones, and I was an expert at corralling mischief-making bear shifter cubs. I cut them off, forcing them into one of the sitting rooms, where I dove over the loveseat, rolled off the cushions, and landed on the floor right behind Attie. Or was this Turi? Grabbing him, I held on tight as he wriggled.
“If you claw me, so help me, you’ll be grounded for a decade!”
A cold snout jabbed into my ear, and I cursed. Loudly. “Damn it, Attie!”
“I’m Attie,” Attie protested from where he sat on my chest, now that he’d shifted.
I lay on the floor staring at the ceiling as the twins, now shifted back into their obnoxious eleven-year-old selves, argued about who was the winner of the race. With a firm but gentle shove, I pushed Attie off me, and he toppled over with a giggle.
“Neither of you won. I won.” I stood and turned to arch an eyebrow at them, my arms crossed over my chest. “Give me one good reason I shouldn’t ground you both?”
Two sets of bright amber eyes blinked up at me. Most struggled to tell the twins apart, but I could tell them apart just fine, at least in their human forms. Their cub forms were more of a challenge.
Attie batted his lashes at me. “Because you’re the bestest big brother ever?”
“I am, but don’t think giving me those puppy eyes is going to work on me. I’m immune, remember?”
They exchanged glances before letting out the biggest sighs to ever come out of such small cubs. When their bottom lips jutted out, I groaned. Who was I kidding? I was such a sucker.
“Really? You’re going to do that to me before coffee?”
There was a sniff, and I gave in so quickly it was shameful.
“Fine, but clean up your mess and don’t do it again.” I pointed a very stern finger at them, and they nodded before launching themselves at me and hugging me. I hoped my enemies never discovered what a pushover I was when it came to cubs or I would be doomed.
With a cheer they took off, and I returned to my library, where I collapsed back onto the couch. Here’s an idea. How about we start this day over?
Something crashed in the distance, and with a grunt, I buried my head under my pillow. It was going to be a long day. Too bad I didn’t have the luxury of sleeping in. I got to my feet and ran a hand through my hair before entering the en suite bathroom to begin my morning routine.
My library was my favorite room in the entire palace. It had been gifted to me by my father when I was a tiny cub, and year after year I’d added to it, bringing in new books, new furnishings, new art, until I’d created my personal sanctuary. I hadn’t even been aware of what I’d done until I’d needed it. With a heavy sigh, I opened my balcony doors and walked to the stone rail to survey my kingdom. An ocean of forest and hills stretched on for what seemed like forever, while a light mystical fog waded through the trees. The morning was crisp, and I inhaled a deep breath of clean, untouched air.
Heavenly. Surrounded by nothing but the sounds of nature. Why any shifter would choose to live in human cities was beyond me. Although humans wandered into my kingdom, those who visited, for the most part, were mindful. They camped and hiked, observed nature. Those who weren’t? Nature dealt with them. I supposed I was fortunate my palace had been built on protected ground. That the humans themselves had deemed this land under protection, having no idea bear shifters had occupied their national park for longer than they’d existed. Like most shifter palaces, mine remained hidden behind wards of magic.
Below my balcony, the gardeners were busy trimming the hedges of the palace’s pristine and colorful gardens. My gaze drifted beyond the treetops to where the hidden villages of my citizens sat in blissful peace. Granted, I hadn’t visited since… I shook that thought from my head. That’s what I had trusted ambassadors for. To go out into the villages on my behalf, to keep our kingdom peaceful and bring back any grievances or new business for me to attend to.
Dressed for a new day, I left my library and headed down the brightly lit corridor toward the dining room. The hall that stretched from my side of the palace to the stairs leading down to the main corridor was my favorite, with its large windows on either side showcasing the thick forests surrounding the palace grounds. The sun’s warm rays cast its glow through every expansive pane, making the gold accents of the gilded frames and various art pieces glitter and sparkle. I loved the white stone of the palace walls and the way they helped keep everything light.
I stilled at the bottom of the steps, surprised I didn’t hear the boisterous shouts of the twins as they’d clearly ignored my warnings and wreaked havoc through the palace. They’d probably taken their mischief out into the gardens. I chuckled. Did I have that much energy at eleven? I doubted it.
Entering the sunny dining room, I walked the length of the banquet table until I reached the chair beside mine at the head of the table and paused to kiss the top of my mother’s head.
“Good morning, Mother.”
“Honestly, sweetheart. You have a perfectly beautiful bedroom with a glorious bed, and yet you sleep on a couch in your library. I don’t understand it. Good morning.”
I smiled and shook my head in amusement. “You’ve been saying that to me nearly every morning since I was a child, and yet…”
Her huff made me laugh. I placed the napkin on my lap as my younger sister emerged from her cave and dragged herself into the room. Her dark hair was an unruly mess clipped to the top of her head, and I frowned at the baggy sweatpants and matching hoodie that hung lazily off one shoulder, her feet sporting a hideous pair of what looked like… sweater boots? Wonderful. It was going to be one of those days. I moved my gaze to my mother, who subtly shook her head at me.
“Good morning,” I said, smiling at Nita as I reached for my steaming cup of coffee. Why did I feel like I was going to need so much more than one cup today? I received a grunt in response as she flopped down into the chair to the right of me, across from our mother. “Where are the twins?”
“How should I know?” Nita growled. “I’m not their babysitter.”
I arched an eyebrow at her. Anyone who thought running a kingdom and ruling over an entire shifter species was exhausting, had clearly never lived with a teenager. Goddess above. Some days I contemplated facing a good old-fashioned plague or battle with a minotaur over facing my sister in one of her bad moods.
“Did we forget our manners?” I asked calmly, waiting for her to put her phone down. Of all the shifter kingdoms, why did my family have to be one of the ones to embrace human technology? It was both a blessing and a curse. Luckily, I held the power where that was concerned, seeing as how only I knew the Wi-Fi password and could change it at will. To my siblings, that power wielded more respect than my being a shifter prince.
With a long-suffering sigh, she dropped her phone onto the table and glared at me. “Sorry.”
Obviously she wasn’t. “What’s wrong?”
I opened my mouth to ask again, but the devious duo erupted into the room.
“Morning!” They echoed each other before Turi took a seat beside our mother, and Attie beside my sister.
“You’re late,” our mother scolded gently.
“Sorry,” the twins said in unison before breaking off into their own renditions of what kept them, each encounter more lavish and over-the-top than the previous one. Apparently we had monsters in the garden that needed vanquishing.
“I hope you didn’t terrify poor Winnie again.” They had a terrible habit of popping out of bushes and scaring the poor woman while she was in the middle of pruning. “One of these days you’re going to scare her so badly she’s going to shift, and then we’ll see who runs off screaming.”
The twins broke off into fits of giggles, making me smile. They were growing up so fast. I remembered a time when all I had to do was make a funny face and Nita would giggle until her puffy cheeks were pink. Now she only turned pink in anger, which was usually directed at me.
I thanked the staff as they brought us our breakfast. The twins carried on as they did every morning, teasing each other, while our mother attempted to illicit some kind of response from my sister. Nita ate a few pieces of fruit, then poked at the rest of her breakfast like she usually did.
“I’m done. Can I go?”
The attitude grated on me, but I reminded myself to be patient. “First, why don’t you tell me what’s wrong.”
“Her friends are having a glamping trip,” Turi informed me through a mouthful of toast.
I arched an eyebrow at him. Did anything I say stick? Sometimes I felt like a recording. Don’t speak with your mouth full. Don’t run in the halls. Don’t scare the staff. Don’t play pranks on the staff. No shifting indoors. I was never so unruly, but then I was the oldest and heir to the throne. My days had been spent mostly at my father’s side, learning the ins and outs of being a prince.
“Sorry,” Turi replied, through a mouthful.
I shook my head and turned my attention back to Nita. “That sounds like fun.”
Nita’s expression darkened.
“Or not.” Had I said something wrong? She loved hanging out with her friends. Other than sleep, it seemed the only thing she did these days.
“It does sound like fun,” Nita spat out. “Lots of fun. But since I can’t go, I won’t be finding out, will I?”
“Why can’t you—”
“It’s at Espen,” Attie pitched in helpfully.
I stiffened. “What did I say about that?”
Nita glared at me like she was trying to set me on fire with her mind. “Not saying its name doesn’t stop it from existing, Bernd.”
“Watch the attitude,” I warned.
Nita jumped from her seat, her fists balled at her side. “It’s not fair! Why do I have to suffer because you can’t get over it!”
Our mother gasped. “Nita!”
“Get over it?” My anger boiled at her callous words.
“Forbidding us from going up there won’t change the fact that he’s dead!”
Temper snapping, I slammed my hands on the table with such force the silverware and dinnerware rattled. “Enough!” My bellow echoed through the cavernous room. Slowly I rose from my seat, eyes narrowed. “You’re grounded.”
Nita stared at me. “What? Until when?”
“Until you start behaving like a princess and less like a selfish brat. Go to your room and think about what you’ve done.”
“You mean speak the truth?”
“Do you really want to keep pushing?”
“I hate you! I wish it had been you instead of him!”
The blow landed as intended, and for a heartbeat, I couldn’t breathe. She didn’t mean it. Of course she didn’t. But it bloodied me, nonetheless.
The screech from my mother’s chair resounded through the otherwise silent room as she stood. “Nita!”
“Leave your phone on the table,” I managed to get out through gritted teeth.
Nita slammed her cellphone on the table and stormed off. Several heartbeats later, something shattered in the distance, and with a sigh I sank into my chair. I closed my eyes and rubbed at my temples to ease the looming headache.
“She didn’t mean it,” my mother said softly.
No one went after Nita. We knew better. She needed time to herself to stew and throw things around before crying herself to sleep. What the hell was I supposed to do? Handling a crisis within the village was a walk in the park. My citizens listened to me, looked up to me, respected me. My teenage sister on the other hand? She wished me a fiery demise.
“I know she didn’t mean it,” I said, lifting my gaze to my mother’s.
“Maybe it’s time…”
“I’m not discussing it.”
“May we be excused?” the twins asked.
I nodded. Why not? This morning had gone to hell anyway.
My chest ached, and I rubbed at the small sapphire pendant that hung from a rope around my neck beneath my clothes, a familiar pain washing over me, one I’d been fighting for years. Instead of dulling, it seemed to have become a part of me. A hand on mine startled me, and I smiled softly at my mother. I drew my brows together and blinked back the tears.
“Will the pain ever go away? It’s been so long, yet it feels like yesterday.”
She squeezed my hand, her eyes bright with unshed tears. “When you lose a part of yourself, there’s no time limit on your grief. It will always be a part of you, and it will get better, but only if you allow yourself to heal, Bernd. The twins were so very young at the time, but you and Nita… You need to find a way to heal.
“How do I do that?” How could I help my sister heal and move on when I couldn’t rid myself of the crippling grief all these years later?
“Only you can answer that.” She stood and kissed my cheek before leaving.
I sat alone in the ornate room, the sunlight, silence, and exposed stone of the palace walls reminding me of a mausoleum. Appetite gone, I stood, thanked the staff, and headed for my sanctuary. There I sat in the window seat and pulled my legs up, my gaze on nothing in particular. Most days I could lose myself in my duties, forgetting the pain that lingered inside me. I had a couple of hours to myself before my ambassadors arrived and I had to be Prince Bernd.
Before I realized it, an hour had gone by. I stood, needing to see Nita before my duties called me away, at least attempt to smooth things over. It would be difficult, what with both of us knowing I wouldn’t allow her to go on the trip. It didn’t help that we were alike in so many ways, both hot-tempered and stubborn. Still, I couldn’t leave things the way they were.
A knock on the door halted my approach. “Yes?”
“It’s me.” The door opened slowly, and Nita half stepped into the office. “Bernd?”
I closed my eyes, relief washing over me that she’d sought me out. “Yes?”
“I… I’m…” Sniff.
Worse than her tantrums was seeing her cry. It twisted me up inside and turned me into a puddle of goo. With a soft sigh, I opened my arms. She flew into the room and launched herself into my embrace, burying her face against my chest as I enveloped her smaller frame.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so horrible. I swear I didn’t mean it,” she said through her sobs.
I squeezed her and rested my cheek against the top of her head, offering what comfort I could. “I know.”
“I hate being so angry all the time,” she mumbled against my chest as I stroked her hair.
She pulled back and rubbed at her eyes before staring up at me. “Really?”
I nodded, and with a soft smile, brushed her unruly hair from her face. We might have inherited our father’s fiery disposition, but she’d inherited our mother’s delicate beauty and warmth. “We’re not so different, you and I.”
“But how do you hide it so well?”
“I don’t. I’ve just learned to channel it in other ways. Sparring, for one.” That gave me an idea. “What if you join me?”
Her face lit up, her amber eyes filled with a brightness that squeezed at my heart. “Really? You’d let me spar with you?”
“Of course. It’s about time we upped your training. You’re next in line to the throne after all.”
She squealed and threw her arms around me, hugging the life out of me and making me laugh. I had no idea she’d be interested in sparring, but then I’d never asked. I should have known better. Nita might be a princess, but she was resilient and fearless. I couldn’t help but puff up a little at how proud I was of her. Another knock sounded at the door, and we both turned as I bid them enter.
Turi stuck his head in. “King Alarick is here.”
“What?” My heart leapt into my throat. “The king? What would he be doing here?”
Turi stumbled into the room, having been pushed by his brother who rushed in, so excited he was bouncing on his toes. “He said it’s time!”
A gasp escaped Nita, her eyes going wide before she gazed up at me, a mixture of awe and concern coming onto her face. “Your quest.”
I managed to suppress a flinch. I’d known it was coming, yet somehow I was completely unprepared.
“There’s a cute guy with him,” Attie said, waggling his eyebrows, and Turi gagged.
“Ew. The king’s advisor is, like, a million years old.”
Attie rolled his eyes. “No, bees for brains, not his advisor.”
“What did I say about name-calling?” I headed for the door, my siblings trailing after me.
I managed to restrain my laughter. “I never said that. At least not about insulting your brother. Where are they?”
“Your work study,” Turi replied. I stopped suddenly, and they all bumped into me. Turning, I arched an eyebrow at them. “And where are you going?”
The twins exchanged glances before their big amber eyes stared up at me. “Not the study?”
“Correct. Go find Mom and let her know what’s going on. I’ll meet with you all once the king and his advisor have gone. No eavesdropping,” I warned, giving them a pointed look. “You know how important this is.”
I received three nods before they took off, whispering hoarsely to one another. Several emotions flooded me, and I struggled to hold on to even one. I’d waited for this day my entire life. The time had come for me to prove my worth as Prince of the Bear Shifters. Despite my years of ruling our kingdom, I feared I wasn’t ready for such a daunting task. What if I failed? Nita was sixteen and as unprepared to rule as I had been at that age.
My family and my citizens needed me. They were counting on me to be strong, just as I had been when I ascended the throne. Unlike many shifter species, mine were spread all over the world. My ambassadors looked to me for guidance, to keep our citizens safe. I wouldn’t let them down. Holding my head high, I made for the study and toward my fate.