“I can’t believe you’re going through with this.”
Ezra sat in quiet observation as his prince paced the study. He hadn’t seen His Highness so unsettled, but then Riley Murrough had been human once and quite prone to fretting. It took time for Riley to grow into his role as the Soldati Prince, but once he’d embraced it—truly accepted his destiny—it became apparent to all that the young man would be as great a ruler as their king. Riley was a kindhearted soul, yet fierce when the occasion called for it. Ezra understood why his prince was upset. Riley had lost his heart to his mate quite some time ago.
“My love, this is your first Soldati Summer Solstice Festival,” Khalon replied, rounding his desk to step before Riley and halting his pacing. He pulled Riley into his arms and lifted his chin so their eyes could meet. “I want you to enjoy yourself.”
Riley let out a huff. “How can I enjoy myself when it’ll be the full moon?”
Khalon’s expression softened, and Ezra frowned down at the open letters on his lap. He hadn’t been able to concentrate on a single word since Riley interrupted his council with Khalon, upset that Khalon had not cancelled the festivities, which were due to start in less than a week’s time. Royal guests would arrive as early as this evening.
Logically, Riley’s argument was sound. Every full moon, Khalon lived as a mortal man, unable to shift into his great Soldati tiger form, making him susceptible to wounds, pain, and human frailty. This was the price he paid to have Riley returned to him by the great priestess after Riley sacrificed himself for Khalon and the Soldati. As it happened, this year’s Soldati Summer Solstice Festival fell on such a full moon, meaning the castle grounds and their kingdom would be filled with all manner of creatures from various realms. This in turn made Khalon’s argument sound, as he now reminded his prince.
“This festival is more than a few days of revelries. Not only is it part of our heritage, but it’s important to our citizens. It allows them the opportunity to spend time with their monarchy and those who protect their world, to feel connected to the Soldati and rejoice with us. It invites them to celebrate our realm and all it has accomplished. It’s also the largest festival of the year. The villagers count on it to sell their goods.”
“I get that,” Riley said. “But you have enemies out there, waiting for the perfect opportunity to pounce. Queen Verity confirmed it. There are Orso hidden within her kingdom who are still secretly loyal to that bastard Pavoni.”
“Love, you know I’m well aware of this threat. We suspected as much after Pavoni’s death, remember? Which is why Queen Verity allowed our spies to roam her kingdom in search of these traitors.”
“Yes, but they still haven’t all been found.”
“They will be,” Khalon assured him. “Besides, you are Saugur. Should our lives be in danger, you’ll be the first to know.”
Khalon spoke the truth. Riley was not only a Soldati prince, but the only living Saugur— a Soldati prophet, a rarity among their kind. Any threat to their realm or the human world they kept safe from demons would be seen by Riley.
“Trust in me.” Khalon placed a kiss on Riley’s brow. “I’d never allow any harm to befall you.” He brushed his lips over Riley’s. “I love you, and I’ll do everything in my power to protect what we’ve built together.”
“I love you too,” Riley murmured, wrapping his arms around Khalon’s neck. “And I trust you.”
The two kissed in a passionate embrace, their love for each other evident in their growing desire. Ezra dropped his gaze to the letters in his hand. Outside of Rayner and his foxling mate, Ezra had never seen mates possess such need for each other. He wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. Having a mate was something he did his best not to think about. No sense wasting precious time on something he was not destined for. As far as Soldati went, Ezra was considered somewhat of a paradox, and he’d resigned himself to an immortal life without a mate. Not that he’d ever secretly desired one. He was far too scholarly for such fairy tales.
This had to be the longest kiss in the history of kisses. Were they even breathing? They had yet to come up for air. Oh dear. Now they were moaning. It wasn’t his place to leave without being dismissed by his king, but his king seemed to have forgotten he was in the room. Ezra coughed lightly into his fist, and the two gave a start.
“Holy shi—pwreck.” Riley gave a breathy laugh. “I forgot you were there. No offense.”
“None taken,” Ezra replied, smiling warmly at his flustered prince.
“Forgive me.” Khalon smoothed down the front of his tunic as he quickly stepped behind Riley.
“Perhaps we should continue our meeting at a later time?” Ezra suggested politely.
Khalon glanced at Riley, no doubt taking in his flushed cheeks and kiss-swollen lips before nodding fervently. “Yes.” He cleared his throat. “Thank you. I’ll call for you.”
“Of course, Your Majesty.” Ezra stood and bowed. “Your Highness.”
Ezra left the room, closing the door behind him. He smiled at the distinct click of the lock. His heart swelled with joy for his king and prince, both of whom deserved the love they found in each other. Khalon was far less irritable these days, and how could he be? Riley was a beacon of light, quite literally. His Soldati prince soul pulsed a bright white glow that at times could be seen—but was mostly felt by all. He radiated warmth, love, hope, and goodness. Riley’s powers were still somewhat of a mystery, but with each passing day they learned a little more.
Now that his meeting was postponed, Ezra had some spare time. Perhaps he’d fetch a book and do a little reading in the garden. That sounded lovely. As he headed for his chambers, he scanned his bookshelf with his mind’s eye, pondering which story he’d lose himself to this time. The castle bustled with activity as everyone prepared for the festival. Servants, staff, and Soldati warriors dashed about, some decorating and readying guest chambers while others arranged meals, refined schedules, or discussed festival events.
Ezra maneuvered around the swift and deft foxling servants, mindful not to get in their way. He risked getting trampled on otherwise. Foxlings had served the Soldati for generations, each position one of honor and prestige. Soldati servants were treated with great respect and protected by the king. The Soldati realm would not have flourished without them, and thanks to Toka, a former foxling servant bestowed with the title and position of Soldati, the law stating servants—and anyone else, for that matter—could not mate above their station had been removed from Soldati law.
Stepping into his chambers, Ezra stopped cold at the sight of the Soldati Eye floating in the center of the room rather than nestled on the black-and-gold velvet pillow where it should have been. The all-knowing Eye flowed through Ezra, offered knowledge and visions of warning, though not on the scale of the prince’s prophecies.
When the former Soldati king passed his crown on to Khalon, the former king and his entire court left for another realm. After centuries of fighting demons, they had earned the right to live out the rest of their immortal lives in peace. This left the Soldati Eye to pick a new voice. And it had chosen Ezra.
Being the voice of the Eye of the Soldati brought with it great power, new dangers, and a heavy burden, but Ezra had accepted the role with pride. With an entire army of Soldati to choose from, many of whom were renowned warriors, the Eye had honored Ezra with its power. Of course, at the time, Ezra had been unaware of exactly what that would entail, or the effect it would have on his personal life—the price he paid for such power. Regardless, to let down the Eye would be to let down his realm. For the longest time, Ezra believed the Eye to be a tool, a magical relic bestowed upon the Soldati by the Goddess since their creation. Lately, he’d begun to question whether there was more to the Eye than he’d originally believed. The blasted thing seemed to have a mind of its own, prone to all manner of mischief.
The glowing gold orb hovered, as if waiting. Ezra arched an eyebrow. “Well? What’s all this about?”
The Eye shot forward, forcing Ezra to dive out of the way. Damnation. Where did it think it was going? He scrambled to his feet, nearly tripping over his own cloak. Darting into the hall, he spotted the Eye floating nearby as if waiting for him.
“I’m not in the mood for one of your games,” Ezra scolded. “I have a book waiting to be read.”
The orb took off once again, and Ezra gave chase. This was not how he wanted to spend his afternoon. Bloody overgrown marble! A kit foxling holding a tray of silverware bigger than him headed straight toward Ezra, forcing him to spin out of the way, where he bumped into something hard and bounced off. Strong hands caught his arms and steadied him.
“Easy there, cub.”
Ezra bristled at the name. He lifted his narrowed gaze to the mountain of an Orso blocking his path. Honestly, the man’s stature alone was enough to block out the sun. Why was he so blasted tall? And wide. And… smiling. Why did he smile at Ezra? Not that anything was wrong with smiling, but Ezra had done nothing to warrant such a reaction.
“I’m not a cub,” Ezra replied with a huff. “Why do you keep calling me that?” He tried to peer around General Segreti to no avail. Perhaps if he stood on his toes? Well, that certainly didn’t help. He couldn’t even see over Segreti’s shoulders. As a former general for the Orso, Segreti was huge and imposing. His chiseled jaw was covered in dark stubble, his mane of pitch-black hair reached just below his shoulders, and his thick black brows had several tiny nicks. In fact, his tanned skin was covered in faint nicks and scars, though the most prominent crossed his left eyebrow, disappeared beneath the brown leather patch, and continued to his cheek. It saddened Ezra. Had he been present when Segreti was injured, he might have healed him and saved his sight. While Ezra didn’t know the extent of the damage, he would hazard a guess that Segreti could no longer see from that eye. He was never without the eye patch.
“Because you remind me of a cub. All young, soft, and innocent. What are you doing?”
“I may be young,” Ezra said, lifting his chin proudly, “but I’m a Soldati warrior and hardly innocent.” Where the hell did it go? With a frustrated grunt, he planted his fists on his hips. “General Segreti, if you wouldn’t mind stepping aside. I fear I’ve lost my quarry.”
“There’s no need for such formalities. Segreti will do.” He turned to look behind him. “There’s nothing there.”
“Now there isn’t, but there was before you blocked my path.”
“What exactly did you lose?”
Segreti peered at him. “The Eye? As in the Soldati Eye? Are you saying you lost the Soldati Eye?”
Ezra let out an exasperated sigh. Perhaps if he exerted some physical effort, he might get Segreti to move. He prodded Segreti, but the Orso didn’t seem to even notice. Goodness, it was as if he were made of stone. “Of course not. I didn’t lose it. It’s merely hiding from me.”
“Hiding…” Segreti arched an eyebrow at him. “You speak of the Eye as if it has a mind of its own.”
Ezra blinked at him. “That’s because it does, General. Sort of.”
Segreti opened his mouth to reply, then closed it. He shook his head, as if attempting to understand. “Why is it hiding from you?”
“Because it’s bored.” Ezra threw up his arms. “I’ve no bloody notion as to why it does anything. Now, would you please step aside so I might find the damnable thing?” Who knew where it was by now? Thankfully, with the exception of a select few, the Eye didn’t allow anyone to touch it. Unpleasantness would come to anyone unworthy who attempted to lay hands on it.
“So help me, if you call me cub, I’ll—”
“Calm yourself,” Segreti said gently, placing his large hands on Ezra’s shoulders. It should have irritated Ezra. He did not like to be touched—though Segreti was incredibly tender for an Orso, despite his very large frame. “Come, I’ll help you find it.”
Ezra frowned. “You will?”
“Of course.” He winked at Ezra. “I can hardly leave such a charming Soldati in distress.”
Charming? Him? Ezra let out an indelicate snort. What nonsense. If Rayner were here, he’d have laughed himself to tears. Why Segreti would think such a thing was beyond Ezra. Regardless, if Segreti wished to be of assistance, Ezra would not deny him, even if he was perfectly capable of finding the Eye on his own.
Both Khalon and Rayner were quite fond of General Segreti. The Orso was renowned across the realms for his fearlessness and loyal heart. He’d served Queen Verity’s father before his mysterious death, then her bastard brother who’d inherited the crown and almost single-handedly destroyed the Orso realm. He’d certainly tarnished its great name.
With Pavoni’s death at the hands of the Soldati, Pavoni’s sister, Verity, had been chosen to be the next monarch. Despite Khalon having the right by law to claim the Orso realm as his own, he merely requested that Queen Verity allow Segreti to pass on his helm to the next worthy Orso. After a lifetime of war and battle, of serving the Orso as their general, Segreti had finally been granted his freedom.
“How do you know where it went?” Segreti asked, snapping Ezra out of his thoughts. Just as he’d said the words, a shrill squeak pierced the air, followed by the clatter of silverware and loud gekkering. “It would seem your quarry has been found.”
“Oh dear.” Ezra tsked. “It has an awful habit of scaring the poor foxlings.”
They hurried down the busy corridor—where Ezra offered an apology to the frazzled foxling who hissed, fur bristling as he bounced anxiously—before rushing out of the open doors to the garden. Ahead of him, the orb lay settled in a bird’s nest among the tree’s thick branches and lush leaves. What in the name of the Goddess was it doing up there?
“It would seem your great and powerful orb believes itself to be a bird. Or perhaps an egg that needs hatching?” Segreti chuckled in amusement, a deep rumbling sound that could easily be mistaken for distant thunder.
Forcing his attention away from Segreti, Ezra considered his choices. If he shifted into his tiger form, he could easily climb up into the tree and reach it. However, his big furry paws wouldn’t be able to hold on to the orb to bring it down, and he didn’t want to chance the blasted thing taking off again. Its smooth, hard surface would prevent him from sinking his fangs into it, and he certainly couldn’t fit the whole thing in his jaws. Wait a moment…
Ezra snapped his fingers and smiled brightly at Segreti. “I can sit on you!”
Segreti appeared startled, and Ezra could have sworn his cheeks had gone pink. Perhaps Segreti was feeling a little under the weather? Ezra would offer to help with any healing once he’d completed his task.
“I beg your pardon?”
Ezra studied the orb in the branches, then with a decisive nod turned back to Segreti. “How tall are you in your bear form, General?”
His plan seemed to have dawned on Segreti, and he grinned wide. “Oh. Right. At least ten feet tall.”
“Well, if you shift and I sit on your shoulders, when you stand, I should be able to reach it.”
Segreti nodded. “How do you know it won’t take off again?”
Ezra glared at the orb. “It better not, if it knows what’s good for it.”
Segreti chuckled, and Ezra arched an eyebrow at him. Why was the general amused?
“Very well. Let’s fetch your orb.”
Ezra took several steps back, observing Segreti as he prepared to shift. He had heard many a tale regarding General Segreti. He was a warrior of legend, his heroic feats captured in song. As the fiercest of Orso warriors, he was even greater in stature than Khalon, certainly wider and more muscular. His biceps were so thick Ezra couldn’t wrap his hands around one if he tried. His shoulders were impossibly broad, his chest expansive. His whole body appeared as if chiseled from the great Orso mountain his realm was known for, from his square jaw down to his tapered waist and strong legs. The strength that radiated from Segreti was impressive. Each thigh was almost the size of both of Ezra’s combined. As a masculine specimen, he appeared perfectly proportionate.
Segreti clapped his hands together, drawing Ezra’s gaze to their size. His fingers were long and calloused. Segreti was a man who forged swords, who’d spent centuries pushing himself to his limits. Ezra was grateful the Orso queen, Verity, had released Segreti from his pledge. The general deserved to live out the rest of his immortal life in peace, without fear of being called out to battle. He’d already served far longer than any general, thanks to the previous bastard of an Orso king.
It was the swiftest change he’d ever seen in an Orso. Their bulk and mass impeded how quickly they could shift, especially compared to Soldati, but General Segreti was an Orso warrior of great experience and power. He shifted, the ground trembling beneath Ezra’s feet when Segreti landed on all four paws. He was the largest Orso that Ezra had ever laid eyes on, with golden-brown fur that looked wonderfully soft despite the various nicks and scars around his body. His left eye was open, the pupil and iris a foggy white with a sliver of amber around the iris. The scar remained, running from his brow over his eyelid, and down to his cheek.
Ezra stepped before Segreti, his frame all but eclipsed by the Orso, and Segreti hadn’t even stood on his hind legs yet. Segreti lowered his head in a show of respect, and what Ezra sensed to be… uncertainty. As if fearing Ezra would reject him in his bear form. Why would he think such a thing?
“My, but you’re magnificent,” Ezra said with a broad smile. He slowly placed a hand to Segreti’s head, in awe of how thick and soft his fur was. “General, I’ve never been awestruck by an Orso until this moment.”
Segreti let out a huff and nuzzled Ezra’s side, making him chuckle. He then lowered himself to the ground, and Ezra climbed up, mindful not to tug too hard at Segreti’s fur as he did. Once he sat across his wide shoulders, he patted Segreti’s head.
“I’m ready.” Ezra surprised himself by laughing when Segreti stood, the sudden movement forcing Ezra to throw his arms around Segreti’s head so he wouldn’t fall. “That was quite thrilling! Now, please, as close to the Eye as you can get.” He held on as Segreti turned and stepped up to the tree. “Steady, General.” Slowly, Ezra reached out and grabbed the orb. “Aha! I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but I do hope it’s out of your system. I have the orb,” Ezra informed Segreti, clutching the temperamental orb under one arm while holding on to Segreti with the other.
As soon as Segreti lowered himself to the ground, Ezra carefully climbed off. The orb pulled at his arm, and Ezra stepped back quickly, snagging his cloak with his bootheel. He flailed an arm and gasped as he fell back. Instead of hitting the hard ground, he landed in Segreti’s strong human arms. Ezra blinked up at Segreti, who stared down at him.
“Good catch, General,” Ezra said cheerfully. “I’m pleased to see retirement has done little to impact your agility and vigor.”
Segreti’s eye widened. There was that flush again. “Oh, um, thank you.” He straightened, and Ezra ended up a little closer to Segreti than was proper, but for some strange reason he couldn’t fathom, he didn’t mind. Segreti’s scent was pleasant—a woodsy mix with many layers, one of them Segreti’s own Orso scent. He stood unmoving; his cheeks rosy in color.
Ezra lifted his arm and laid the back of his hand to Segreti’s brow. “Are you unwell, General?”
Segreti looked puzzled. “Unwell?”
“Your face is flushed.”
“Oh, uh…” Segreti cleared his throat, and Ezra smiled warmly.
“I know! I’ll make you some herbal tea. It’ll work wonders. You’ll see.” He started for the south gardens but realized Segreti hadn’t moved. He turned and arched an eyebrow. “Come along, General.”
Segreti chuckled, and in two long strides was beside Ezra. “I’ve spent many a century following orders, but I daresay yours have been the most pleasing.”
Ezra lifted his gaze to Segreti’s. “Forgive me. I meant no disrespect.” He’d been told many a time he could come across as brash. It wasn’t his intent. He simply had no time for pretenses.
“There is nothing to forgive, sweet Ezra.” Segreti took hold of Ezra’s hand and kissed it. “It’s certainly no hardship to follow you. Dare I say, I find myself eager to see where you might lead me.”
Ezra nodded, though he was somewhat perplexed by Segreti’s behavior. As they walked together, Ezra discovered he rather enjoyed Segreti’s presence. Despite his stature and Orso nature, he exuded a pleasing sense of peace. Odd, since Ezra had always cherished the time spent on his own. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, or of the quiet, smiling general at his side.