Jack shuddered against the cold bite of his
shackles. The iron cuffs held him upright, and his arms were stretched tight
over his head. Gravity pulled him sloping forward painfully against his bonds.
His umber hair swayed in sweat-slicked strands and clung to his face. The
humidity hung like milky fog visible against the gray stones. He could smell
the herbal traces of algae glazing the walls. No moans, no cries for release,
not even a rattled chain sounded throughout the dungeon. He deduced he was the
only prisoner—or the only one currently living.
It had happened so fast. He was at the shoreline of the lake when
two figures shot from the water. Shrouded in black, the demonic men yanked him
into the lake. Jack had expected his end. But he didn’t expect a dungeon, and
not just any, but Darkmore’s dungeon. He knew it as well as any ghost story. He
had teased Sevon mercilessly for crossing his fingers and turning in a circle
three times as he walked by the entrance.
Jack’s heart softened. Sevon, sweet Sevon. It had been exciting
for Jack when he was a cub to have a special friend outside of Priagust. One
who was not a shifter at all, but something different. He was Jack’s treasure,
and he would guard their memory.
But the men had taken him and tossed him in this dank cell. It had
to be a mistake. Darkmore was Priagust’s sworn protector. King Louis would
never wrongfully imprison a shifter. Jack spit a speck of grit. Was Louis
alive? Did he survive the storm? What of Anna Maria? Surely she’d know.
But Jack wasn’t sure. He had been just a child when he saw Louis
die, and all childhood memories were fallible. He could only hope it was a
misunderstanding. He squinted with the painful pull in his shoulders, and the
realization sank in. This was far more than a mere misunderstanding.
Jack’s pupils flexed into pinpricks when the sound of distant
footsteps announced someone’s approach. He jerked his chin toward the sound to
get the first look at his host.
An ethereal, earthbound spirit drifted into the dungeon. Pale as
Winter Mother’s snow and with a brilliant bloom of golden curls to rival Father
Sun’s rays, the woman captivated him. Dressed in layers of the midnight sky and
coal, her skirts swirled in a trail of goldfish fins behind her. The unusual
ladybird settled at the cell door, tossing a lock of spun gold over her
shoulder. She waited.
“What do they call you?” she coldly demanded.
A peculiar tenor tone in her voice made Jack choke on his breath. A man. The strange, colorful bird was a man.
By the way he glared at Jack as if he were of no consequence, Jack
decided that whatever the case, he had to be on guard. Jack sniffed and
mentally discerned a more masculine scent under the perfumed oils. But there
were two masculine scents, this beautiful man’s and someone else’s. He licked
the salt on his lip and smirked. He had nothing left to lose.
Jack lifted his head, and he panted against the searing pain in
his back. He focused on the curious little meadowlark shrouded in flimsy
frippery. He had never seen such an unusual hue of hair before, but he knew one
thing for certain.
“You’re not the king,” Jack said.
Something came over the strange man as he quirked his thin brow in
irritation. “Yes, I am the king,” he
growled in warning. “Your name, creature.”
Jack evaded the question and changed the subject. “The king of
Darkmore would never show a shifter such hostility,” he spat. “Go, little
meadowlark. Fetch him, now. You are of no concern.”
The supposed king recoiled on his booted heel as if he had been burned.
“Excuse me, you maggot?” he growled and his temper flared.
Jack squinted at him. He looked so much like Anna Maria, as Jack
remembered her. Perhaps her son? Perhaps Sevon? Jack swallowed. He had to keep
it to himself. He had to find out what he was dealing with first, if he
survived that long. He thought of his brother, Kaltag, back in Priagust,
probably wondering where he was and if Jack was still staring over the lake,
waiting for the day Sevon would appear.
Jack’s heart thumped.
“Louis is gone. I am the king now, and you will answer to me. My
sources tell me you’re a spy from the shifter land of Priagust,” he said. The
accusation did not bode well for Jack.
Jack took his stand against his captor. He strained against his
shackles and grinned through the searing pain in his shoulder blades. “Your
sources are clearly mistaken. I was only fishing when your men emerged from the
lake and tried to drown me. Which—” He glanced around, and his shackles
rattled. “This is some level of hell, correct?” Jack watched him, still
puzzling his way through recollections. It wasn’t possible he was Sevon. Why
would Sevon become this? He hissed a laugh and kept up a brave face. Jack
turned his gaze up. He smirked when the king leaned away from the hammered iron
bars of Jack’s cell in disgusted horror. “You are a very fussy bird. You’re no
more than a chick, peeping for nourishment.”
“You will answer my questions, shifter…. Or you will be forced to
“What kind of king do you think you are?” Jack asked. “Do you
understand the scope of what you are doing by holding me like a criminal?”
“Pardon me for not rolling out the red carpet and most lovely
courtesans,” he said sarcastically.
“A little bird that pecks. I like that.” Jack chuckled.
Crossing his willowy arms in irritation, the king nodded to the
stocky dungeon guard.
The guard loped forward on his gnarled legs and slipped the heavy
key in the iron padlock. With a protesting shrill, the bolt popped from its
moorings with a loud echoing clank.
The cell door swung open with an antiquated creak, and colorful bird of a man
slipped into the cell.
Jack’s heart thumped, and his face heated. It was Sevon. His Sevon. He had never been so sure. In
the twenty-two years between then and now, the boy Jack had so longed for no
longer existed. Confusion swirled through him, but Jack had to keep it within.
More parts of the puzzle would fall into place if he just gave it time.
His heart wouldn’t stop racing; all the while he maintained his
“I’d curtsey, but as you can see, I’m a little tied up,” Jack
This new Sevon cocked his hip in irritation and snorted. “For a
vicious animal, you don’t look like much.”
The term hit Jack hard, but he wouldn’t cower.
“Funny.” Jack chuckled. “For a king, you present yourself quite a
bit like a whore.”
Before he could blink, Sevon was upon him. He yanked Jack by the
scruff of his hair, tilting his neck painfully backward on its stalk to meet
him eye to eye. Jack’s eyes rolled wildly to focus on the glacier blue of
Sevon’s. His scent stabbed into Jack’s nose, jabbing cruelly into his brain.
The delicate floral became an unrelenting assault on his mind and body. The
damning confirmation sank into Jack’s stomach. It was a matter of survival not
to show fascination or fear.
“Listen to me, you worthless shit-eating maggot!” Sevon snarled in
his face. “You don’t get to call me a whore! Do you understand? I will leave
you here to rot in this dank cell until even the rats find you too foul and
putrescent. You will be thankful we don’t outright kill you. You will be appreciative of your accommodations.”
Sevon relaxed his grip and his harsh tone eased. “You will be
eager to answer our questions. You will
make yourself very helpful. Or I will have you skinned alive and your flesh
made into jerky.” Sevon snorted a breath through his nose, and Jack’s hair
fluttered. The beautiful blond man smiled like a content feline. “Now, do we
have an understanding?”
Channeling the bravest parts of himself, and locking away the heartbreak,
Jack laughed with a crooked, toothy grin. If this was the game, then he would
play it until he was the last one standing. Finally, he had sorted the second
male scent, and his thoughts sparked with devious delight. “Did I ruffle your
feathers, meadowlark? Does the man
whose scent you’re slathered in get to ruffle more than your feathers?”
Sevon shoved him away with a wail of disgust. Jack’s head bounced
against his chest, and his manacles creaked at the added pressure. Sevon’s
offended squeal was the only warning as a hard, echoing slap cracked across
Jack’s cheek so forcefully that his vision blew out into whiteness for a
With several flustered breaths, Sevon sharply pivoted and then
stormed out of the cell. He nodded to the stocky guard. “Have him questioned
about the nature of his people and land. I don’t care how you do it, or to what
ends. Use any means necessary to milk him dry.”
The guard bobbed his head and bowed.
Turning back, Sevon regarded Jack one final time.
Jack noted the confusion mingled with a semblance of fascination.
He forced a smile through his blood-tinged teeth. “See you soon, Your Majesty,”
Jack clung to a scrap of hope, and listened to the whispers of
Sevon’s skirts as he left Jack in the darkness.
The rats chittered.