“Drink up, your highness. You’re falling behind.”
Ronan, younger son of the king of Moorcondia, shot his companion the kind of prideful grin that he’d carefully cultivated since arriving at the university. “Alas, I have to leave for an assignation with a lady and can’t afford to be too much in my cups.” He slid the glass of beer back in the direction of his classmate.
The boy barked out a laugh and clapped Ronan on his shoulder with the kind of bone-jarring exuberance that seemed so common among boys of their age. Ronan didn’t understand why every interaction had to turn into a contest of inflicting pain and humiliation. The others thought it all hilarious, reinforcing what he’d known for most of his life. He was not like them, not like any boy he’d ever met.
Not even his studious older brother thought anything strange about the rough and tumble lives of their male friends. It was merely that as the future ruler of their country, Morlen had the weight of duty on his shoulders and had to prepare for the time he would ascend to the throne. Such was the fate of the one of them who’d come out of the womb first, even by mere moments. He joined them when he could for nights of drinking and carousing, careful always not to do anything to tarnish his reputation. As the ‘spare’ in the family, Ronan had no expectations and could do most anything he liked. No, not really. He was only able to get away with what people thought a young, rich man would do. Too bad those were things he didn’t like at all.
He didn’t let his desires show on his face and instead bade his companions a good night. They gave him a raucous send-off, filled with innuendos of what they assumed he would get up to and demanding a full report the next day. He joined in the merriment with rehearsed bravado. “Now, lads, you know a gentleman never speaks of what happens between the sheets. I shall only say that I’m glad we don’t have classes tomorrow.”
Ronan threw on his heavy cloak and braced for the chilly night he knew waited for him outside. Spring was only grudgingly arriving, but his semester of classes would soon come to an end, and he could return to Moorcondia for the summer recess. It would be a relief to finally go home. This first year of university had proven more taxing than he’d expected. It wasn’t his studies. It was the strain of keeping up his pretense of being a profligate rake. No one forced him to play this charade. Morlen certainly didn’t care. But Ronan feared that if he didn’t present the image of masculinity that everyone expected, they would easily see inside him, to his true self. He wasn’t sure he could bear the scorn he felt certain would come his way.
I am a coward.
He considered, as he had many times, asking his parents to let him drop out. A university education was relatively new among the royal family. They might not care if he came back or not. But if he didn’t, what would he do then? No matter how everyone had become accustomed to his uncle’s new wife, Ronan wasn’t so stupid as to assume his family and the members of court would accept him in any role other than an advisor to his brother. He would be expected to marry the proper noblewoman to add to the next generation of the family. That was his destiny, and staying at university helped put that eventuality off for a few years. There was value in that.
Ronan’s personal guard, a somewhat grizzled man who was nonetheless capable of breaking a man’s neck with a single twist, pushed away from the wall he’d been holding up in the drinking house and silently followed in Ronan’s wake. He hated having to be chained to someone else all the time, but one older man who held no interest for him and kept his opinions to himself wasn’t so bad, although the man’s silent censure was often palpable. It was better than the contingent of younger guards who surrounded Morlen day and night—not that anyone really thought they were at risk here in this seat of learning… Still, it was important for the realm as well as each of them personally that they be safe from any violence. With Sir Frauk at his back, no one dared so much as shoot an angry look at him. Ronan simply had to pretend he didn’t care about being shadowed by another who undoubtedly gave the king regular reports on how his younger son was running wild. His whole life had become one long effort at play-acting. It felt as if no one truly understood who and what he was, not even his twin.
Ronan tugged his cloak closer as he walked through the nearly empty streets of the old city, the sound of Sir Frauk’s heavy-booted tread behind him. Monks had settled here long ago, attracting more people and founding a community. Starting a place of higher learning had come naturally to those original men, and now the university was surrounded by a vibrant city that existed on the edge of Moorcondia. It was a hub of trading, as well, attracting commerce from all over, except from those people who dwelled in the Dark Mountains. They kept to themselves, enigmas as much as the land where they lived. The craggy rocks were not inviting and rose high into the clouds.
They cast a looming shadow over this part of the city in particular—not surprising, given that this was where one went for less savory pursuits. The boys at the university considered it a badge of courage that they ventured here late at night. Ronan despised it and couldn’t wait to reach his apartments. All he wanted to do was take a relaxing bath and curl up in bed with a good book. He could picture his valet waiting patiently for his return. Unlike Frauk, Igon was quick to show his disapproval of Ronan’s nighttime pursuits. But once he’d settled Ronan into bed, he left him blessedly alone.
Ronan picked up his pace with eyes on the uneven cobblestones to ensure that he didn’t slip. The fashionable boots he wore pleased him, but they weren’t very sturdy. The last thing he wanted was for Frauk to think it was drink that made him stumble. The man suddenly uttered a muted cry, very unlike him. Ronan turned to see why and froze at the sight of the large soldier crashing to the ground. Another man, little more than a dark figure, heavily armed, loomed over him. Ronan stepped forward, although to do what he couldn’t fathom. He was terrible at the martial arts and didn’t possess so much as knife on him.
A rush of air and a flicker of something out of the corner of his eye was all the warning he got before someone grabbed him from behind. He was swept off his feet, and a cloth was pressed against his nose and mouth. Trained in warfare as he was, he instinctively started to put up a fight. Whoever had him, though, was far stronger, the man’s massive arm holding him around his chest in a vise-like grip. And there was something soaking the gag, a sweet smell that made his head swim. As he fought to regain his freedom, the drug caused his muscles to go lax. Then there was nothing.